A New Greccio
Anthony M. Carrozzo, O.F.M.
Theologians and poets may share the same faith but they certainly express that faith differently. The Christmas event explained by the theologians is with the word Incarnation, a beautiful word when explained and situated within our own vocabulary but even then it does not express the fullness of the event. A truly seasoned poet, however, can enter into the mystery and make us part of it. Elizabeth Jennings does that with the final two stanzas of her Christmas Suite:
Down to that littleness, down to all that
Crying and Hunger, all that tiny flesh
And flickering spirit – down the great stars fall,
Here the huge kings bow.
Here the farmer sees his fragile lambs,
Here the wise man throws his books away.
This manger is the universe’s cradle,
This singing mother has the words of truth.
Here the ox and ass and sparrow stop,
Here the hopeless man breaks into trust.
God, you have made a victory for the lost.
Give us this daily Bread, this little Host.
Down to that littleness she begins. Jennings use of littleness signals dependence. An infant cannot take care of itself. The crying and need to be fed cannot be satisfied alone. The infant knows it is hungry but does not know how to feed itself. The image that is elicited is that of an infant in need of human care. The line begins with down, clarified a few lines later down the great stars fall, reminiscent of that haunting Italian Christmas song Tu scendi dalle stelle, You descend from the stars. The infant had been on a throne, seated next to his Father, now He emptied Himself (Phil 2:7) so he cries in a crèche waiting to be fed. Not even a shadow of His former Self. Yet the huge kings bow, powerful and strong yet bowing to a child.Then the odd line the farmer sees his fragile lambs. It takes us a moment to understand that this fragile infant will become the Lamb of God: Behold the Lamb of God.
Here the wise man throws his books away. How odd. A wise man has a lot of books on which he depends for wisdom and insight. Not in the face of this great mystery, however. Books are useless. They will only confuse us. What the wise man simply needs is admiration for a God Who bends so low because He loves us so much and desires to be one with us. While He desires this, however, we become filled with pride, become independent and scoff at being childlike. So we miss the Lord of Littleness.
Then comes the masterful opening line of the final stanza This manger is the universe’s cradle. This manger is not simply a cradle for the infant but it is also the nurturing place of the new heaven and new earth envisioned by John’s Revelations. It is as fragile as the infant for it depends for its sustenance and care on us. In our prideful state we do not care for the universe but destroy it through our carelessness.
The mother sings of her newfound truth knowing that the child will someday identify Himself as the Truth; I am the Truth (Jn. 14:6) and the hopeless man breaks into trust. Shouldn’t that be hope? Hope is not sufficient. To say “I hope you will” includes a bit of doubt but “I trust you will” implies a firmness of belief. Trusting insures us that God made a victory for the lost. We were losers, now we are winners, not because of anything we have done but for what God has done for us.
Then we return to littleness: Uniting the Christmas mystery with the Eucharist, we receive our daily Bread, this little Host. More than a clever inclusion this tells us that the Lord of Heaven and Earth prefers littleness as His identity. Of course, theologians and spiritual writers prefer Humility, a camouflage word for littleness, smallness, weakness. Littleness is our identity, too: Unless you become as little children…
Littleness is the fundamental meaning of Franciscan Poverty. Poverty is a way of life not simply a matter of ascetical practices. It is about becoming little in our own eyes, becoming weak in the eyes of the world.
It is a Christmas theme that not only the world needs but also the Church because through time the Church appears too worldly desiring to return to the days of Christendom. Even we Franciscans as we grow smaller and weaker often long for the days of numbers and youthfulness. We do not want to be weak and small. We do not want to be like the Infant who appeared on the human scene.
At Greccio the Poverello – the little poor man – gathered friars and friends for a simply remembrance of the first Christmas to be shocked by a live, tiny Infant. We must experience a new Greccio in which Christ is born within us. St. Bonaventure writes of this in the second feast of the Five Feasts of the Child Jesus in which he writes “(Jesus) is born when the soul begins to do that which it long had in mind but was afraid to undertake through fear of its own weakness.” Here Bonaventure uses the term weakness differently than Jennings does. It is weakness that keeps us from allowing the new Greccio to be conceived within us. To overcome that Bonaventure encourages us “If you cannot be a Catherine or a Cecilia, do not be ashamed to be a Mary Magdalene or a Mary of Egypt [...] like a woman in labor, hasten with desire and longing toward a happy delivery.”
This delivery takes place so that we come to “know and taste how good the Lord Jesus is and when we nourish Him with our prayers, bath Him in the waters of our warm and loving tears, wrap Him in the spotless swaddling cloths of our desires, carry Him in the embrace of holy love, kiss Him over and over again with heartfelt longing and cherish Him in the bosom of our utmost heart.” Taking on the role of Mary, we experience with our spiritual senses the growing presence of the Lord Jesus within us. This is indeed a new Greccio in which the child Jesus begins to live and move and have His being within us.
Ultimately, then, it is Bonaventure himself who unites the theologian and the poet. He has written extensively on the Incarnation most notably in his Breviloquium and he can wax poetically as he does in the Tree of Life and as he does in the work we have just quoted. Indeed, we need both the theologian to challenge our thinking and the poet to move us to contemplate the mystery.
Fr. Anthony Carozzo, O.F.M. is former minister provincial of the Holy Name Province in New York.