A Narrative Analysis of Greccio’s Christmas Celebration

Willem Marie Speelman, "Here Francis Completed His Mission to Restore the Lord’s House: A Narrative Analysis of Greccio’s Christmas Celebration."

The significance of Greccio’s Christmas celebration can be sought in its artistic value as a “tableau vivant,” in its theological message of the Incarnation, and in its historical influence on the nativity scene today. All make sense. But what does the text, woven by his biographer Thomas of Celano, offer as a locus of meaning? In a narrative approach, we will focus not on the intentions of the writer or the reader, nor on the historical background, but mainly on the lines that the text draws. In the context of the first book of the Life of Saint Francis, which this story concludes, this may be the completion of Francis’ mission to restore the ancient house of the Lord. 

The liturgical drama in the Gothic period

Cultural memories have been made present in plays since time immemorial.[1] These plays enable a re-experiencing of an event or action: that people can participate in it, and that in this gestural way it also does something to him. In Christianity, too, liturgy moves into the realm of dramatic play from the outset. The account of pilgrim Egeria describes how dramatically and emotionally the Easter Triduum was celebrated in Jerusalem in the 4th century.[2] 

In the 10th century, there are traces of a new mentality in the West, which will culminate in the Gothic era. It is as if man discovers himself, begins to trust his body, and wants to see reality with his own eyes. Man also wants to see the reality of God, and he sees God in his humanity. And I keep writing ‘he,’ but it is also a time when the female gender is coming more strongly to the fore. Not only in women, but also in men. Into this new mentality of humanization also fits the new interest in liturgical play.

In England, at the end of the 10th century, a play developed from the song Quem queritis in sepulchro (“Whom seek ye in the grave?”) that would later be called a liturgical drama. This play finds fertile ground in various monasteries and churches in Europe. In the 11th century, mirroring this song, Quem queritis in presepe (“who seekest thou in the manger?”) is composed and elaborated into a Christmas play. The link between Christmas and Easter can also be recognized in the story of Greccio’s Christmas celebration. Listening to the music, you can hear influences from the troubadours and trouvères. In and outside the portal of the church of the Notre Dame of Paris the Jeu d’Adam, the play of Adam, was performed.[3] All the people in the square, the pro-fanum before the fanum (sacred place), could see the story with their own eyes and hear it with their own ears. The story stepped out of the church, into the world and the people out there.

A Franciscan realism

Francis was, of course, a child of his time, and was always someone open to the influences of others. Many of his texts were written on pre-existing texts, his rules are collections of what he heard from others or experienced himself, and when faced with an important question he asked for advice. On the other hand, Francis handled all these traditions, in the broadest sense of the word, so creatively that he followed his own path – ‘in the footprints of the Lord’ (1 Pe 2:21) – and turned them into an original work. He did not develop a new liturgy, theatre or theology, but – in the words of his biographer – devoted his life to observe the gospel (Evangelium observare, RB 1:1) in everything and with everything. This also applies to his dramatic Christmas celebration in Greccio, in which he wants to see the memory with his own eyes.

His Christmas celebration is not a liturgical drama; it does not arise from a song and has no dialogues. It is formed as a liturgy, the central Christian liturgy: the Eucharist (Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, 16). However, this liturgy was not celebrated in the church, nor in the church porch, but outside, in the profane world. Art historian Erwin Rosenthal calls it a “tableau vivant,” with which “the musician of God” sets the atmosphere of the Bethlehem stable in such a way that it really touches people emotionally.[4] He did not explain the well-known story in a new way, but brought the forgotten event to life, so that it entered people’s hearts. Thomas suggests a new way of celebrating the mystery of the Eucharist: Adveniunt populi et ad novum mysterium novis gaudiis adlaetantur.

Narrative reading

In my narrative reading of the story, as recorded by Thomas of Celano’s Life of Saint Francis (1Cel 84-87), I begin with the framework within which the story is set, i.e. the beginning and the end.

1.         Thomas’ framing of the story

The narrative begins with: “[Francis’] highest aim, foremost desire, and greatest intention was to pay heed to the holy gospel in all things and through all things, to follow the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ and to retrace His footsteps completely with all vigilance and all zeal, all the desire of his soul and all the fervor of his heart. (...) We should notice then, as matter worthy of memory and something to be recalled with reverence, what he did, three years prior to his death, at the town of Greccio, on the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1Cel 84)

The story ends with: “The site of the manger was consecrated as a temple to the Lord. In honor of the most blessed father Francis, an altar was constructed over the manger, and a church was dedicated. This was done so that where animals once ate the fodder of the hay, there humans henceforth for healing of body and soul would eat the flesh of the immaculate and spotless lamb, our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us with supreme and indescribable love, who lives and rules with the Father and the Holy Spirit as God, eternally glorious forever and ever. Amen. Alleluja, Alleluja.” (1Cel 87)

In the concluding story of the first book, the biographer refers to the beginning, where Francis receives a calling and formulates his mission. In the second book, Thomas will tell the story of his death. The story itself begins with the remembrance “what he did … on the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ” and closes with the effects of this action on his followers, after Francis had left the scene or even after he had left this life. This Christmas celebration is told as an exemplary story: this is the point that Francis made, here he concludes his restoration of the ancient house of the Lord (1Cel 18). We will see that he did this by awakening and reviving the mystery of the Lord in the hearts of his followers.

2.         The preparation

[Francis said to a follower, John, member of the nobility:] “If you desire to celebrate the coming feast of the Lord together in Greccio, hurry before me and carefully make ready the things I tell you. For I wish to enact the memory of that babe who was born in Bethlehem: to see as much as is possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he rested on hay.” Once the good and faithful man had heard Francis’ words, he ran quickly and prepared in that place all the things that the holy man had requested. (1Cel 84)

Finally, the day of joy has drawn near, the time of exultation has come. From many different places the brethren have been called. As they could, the men and women of that land with exultant hearts prepare candles and torches to light up that night whose shining star has enlightened every day and year. Finally, the holy man of God comes and, finding all things prepared, he saw them and was glad. (85)

The figurative isotopy (a term for picturing the scene so that it is recognizable, like ‘cooking’ or ‘travelling’) is a preparation of a welcoming place for the arrival of a new child in our lives. This welcome is modelled on the story of the birth of Jesus Christ, which is to be celebrated in Greccio as a “new mystery of new joy” (85). The story pays much attention to the preparation. Francis sends people ahead: first John who prepares the celebration, then the invitation of friars from numerous places, then the arrival of “men and women” from the region who bring their own light bearers to make the Light of Christmas present. Finally, he himself arrives and sees that everything is prepared.

The scene is reminiscent of the preparation scene of Jesus’ Passover meal in Luke 22:7-13, where He sends Peter and John ahead, to an upper room that had already been prepared. Christ celebrates His last supper there, announcing His suffering and death. In the story of his biographer, Francis’ suffering and death follows his Christmas celebration.

3.         Bringing the gifts

Indeed the manger is prepared, the hay is carried in, and the ox and the ass are led to the spot. There simplicity is given a place of honor, poverty is exalted, humility is commended, and out of Greccio is made a new Bethlehem. The night is lit up like day, delighting both man and beast. The people arrive, ecstatic at this new mystery of new joy. The forest amplifies the cries and the boulders echo back the joyful crowd. The brothers sang the praises due to the Lord, and the night was filled with rejoicing and jubilation. God’s saint stood before the manger, always sighing with pity, but also glowing with wondrous joy. Over the manger the solemnities of the Mass are celebrated and the priest enjoys a new consolation. (1Cel 85)

The figures of the first sentence – praeparatur, apportatur, adducuntur – recall the preparation of the Eucharist. This is a new mystery, that is, a new celebration of the mystery. It takes place outside the church, on a place where a church will be built later. Instead of the altar, a manger is prepared, over which an altar will be constructed later. Instead of bread and wine, hay is carried in, at a place where bread and wine will be carried in later. Together with the brethren and men and women of Greccio, an ox and an ass are led in as faithful, standing around the altar.[5] In the virtues in which Francis recognized Christ – “simplicity,” “poverty,” “humility” – Christ is present. And in His presence, Bethlehem has come down to Greccio. Here, around the manger with hay, with the ox and the ass, with the friars, with the resounding environment, with the virtues of Christ, gather the men and women and God’s saint. The saint felt both pity and joy.

The reformulation of the Eucharist resounds with other stories of Francis, in which he felt no compunction about a personal reformulation of the traditional. Francis rewrote liturgical texts as for example the Holy Virgin Mary Antiphon in the Office of the Passion, and in this Office he even reformulated the Psalms. Francis felt free to rearrange the liturgy, as for example in the story of Fioretti IX about Francis devising his own office with brother Leo. Following in the footsteps of the Lord, he felt free to fulfill the law by bringing it into the hearts of the people. Reading Thomas of Celano, we will find a Francis that did not reform the scripture, or the church and her liturgy, but restored it by adding new forms: faith generated forms.

This passage closes with a strange narrative move: Celebrantur missarum solemnia supra praesepe et nova fruitur consolatione sacerdos. Where did this priest – sacerdos – suddenly come from? Every important element of the celebration was carefully prepared, but not the priest, not the bread and wine and other matters needed to celebrate the holy Mass. If this sentence concludes the passage, as in the American translation of Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, it suggests that the sacerdos is the “sanctus Dei”, which is Francis, who is standing before the manger. His combined feeling of pity and joy has become a new consolation.[6]

4.         Church legitimacy

We can also connect the above discussed sentence with the beginning of what follows: “Over the manger the solemnities of the Mass are celebrated and the priest enjoys a new consolation. The holy man of God is dressed in the vestments of the Levites, since he was a Levite, and with full voice sings the holy gospel.”

A narrative approach does not ask whether there was indeed a priest celebrating Mass, or whether Francis was indeed a deacon. If the story says so, there is indeed the appearance of a priest and a deacon. But a narrative analyses does ask the question what these elements, drawn from the figurative isotopy of canon law, are doing in this story. For they clearly do not fit into the thematic lines of the story. On the contrary, they suddenly appear as strange elements and cause a narrative turn, a kind of deus ex machina. And after this short passage, both the figures of sacerdos and levite have left the story as quickly as they entered into it. The role these figures have is to give ecclesiastical legitimacy to the event.[7]

5.         The celebration proper

“Here is his voice: a powerful voice, a pleasant voice, a clear voice, a musical voice, inviting all the highest of gifts. The he preaches to the people standing around him and pours forth sweet honey about the birth of the poor King and the poor city of Bethlehem. Moreover, burning with excessive love, he often calls Christ the “babe from Bethlehem” whenever he means to call Him Jesus. Saying the word “Bethlehem” in the manner of a bleating sheep, he fills his whole mouth with sound but even more with sweet affection. He seems to lick his lips whenever he uses the expressions ‘Jesus’ or ‘babe from Bethlehem,’ tasting the word on his happy palate and savoring the sweetness of the word.” 

The actual celebration is not the priest’s Mass, but Francis’ sermon. As for the content, the story only tells us that it is about the birth of the poor King in Bethlehem. Is the content of the sermon irrelevant or was it so offensive that the he would rather remain silent about it?[8] By being silent about the content of the sermon, the story tells us something else. The focus is almost exclusively on the emotional and bodily communication, the sound of the voice and the flavor of the words. By imitating the bleating of a sheep, Francis identifies with the Lamb of God, who does not speak any word but communicates Himself in His bodiliness. It is a kind of Eucharistic liturgy in which Christ communicates himself bodily through the gifts, the sounds and the gestures of His celebrating congregation.

It is, by the way, quite common for Francis’ message to be communicated beyond the content of his words. Consider for example his encounter with the leper (1Cel 17; 3Com 11), his meeting with the sultan (1Cel 57), his forgetting the sermon he had prepared (1Cel 72), the testimony of a learned doctor who could not remember the content of his sermons (1Cel 107).

6.         The effect

The gifts of the Almighty are multiplied there and a virtuous man sees a wondrous vision. For a man saw a little child lying lifeless in the manger and he saw the holy man of God approach the child and waken him from a deep sleep. Nor is this vision unfitting, since in the hearts of many the child Jesus had been given over to oblivion. Now he is awakened and impressed on their loving memory by His own grace through His holy servant Francis. At length, the night’s solemnities draw to a close and everyone went home with joy. (1Cel 86)

Although all nativity scenes have shepherds, Joseph, Mary and the child Christ, this is not what the story tells us. Their presence is only embodied in the people gathered around the manger in Greccio. This, again, makes it a liturgical celebration and not a theatrical staging. And the effect of the celebration is more than an “enactment of the memory” with which Francis addressed John, for in the words “lifeless” (exanimem) and “awakened” (resuscitatus), the celebration of Christmas has become an Easter experience. Francis’ mission, a restoration of the house of the Lord, was fulfilled by bringing the living Christ back in the hearts of the people inside and outside the church. And, as they included in the faithful standing around the ‘altar,’ also in the heart of the ox, the ass and the environment. In this story, the house of de Lord is bigger than man can imagine.


[1] "Liturgische Dramen", in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1989): kk. 1010-1051.

[2] Kai Brodersen, Aetheria/Egeria: Reise ins Heilige Land. Latin and German (De Gruyter, 2016).

[3] Grace Frank, "The Genesis and Staging of the Jeu D’ Adam", PMLA 59:1 (1944): 7-17.

[4] Erwin Rosenthal, "The Crib of Greccio and Franciscan Realism", The Art Bulletin (1954): 57-60.

[5] In the tradition going back to Isaiah 1:3, the ox stands for the church of the Jews, and the ass for the church of the Gentiles. A popular Christian motif is from Habakkuk 3:2-LXX, where the Lord appeared between two animals. See: Bogdan G. Bucur, Elijah N. Mueller, "Gregory Nazianzen’s reading of Habbakuk 3:2 and its reception: a lesson from byzantine scripture exegesis", Pro Ecclesia 20 (2011): 86-103, 92.

[6] Francis was not a priest, but he is called a sanctus Dei. Therefore, he was a sacred man. And if sacerdos can etymologically described as ‘made sacred,’ the word may refer to Francis.

[7] This legitimization is comparable to St. Bonaventure’s assurance that, in order to prevent “that this would [not] be considered a type of novelty,” Francis had “petitioned for and obtained permission from the Supreme Pontiff” (LegMai 10:7).

[8] See André Jansen, "De kerstviering te Greccio in 1223", Franciscaans leven 90 (2007): 244-248. Jansen discusses Chiara Frugoni, "Sui vari significati del Natale di Greccio, nei testi e nelle immagini", Frate Francesco 70 (2004): 35-115. I do not disagree with his and her comments, but a narrative approach respects the silence of the storyteller.