Long ago a man name St Francis lived in the country of Italy near the town of Assisi. This holy man had developed the habit of going off alone into the woods, and praying for hours at the time, with only the birds and little woodland animals for company.
On this day, in the year 1223, as Christmas drew near, St Francis thought to himself, “How wonderful it would be to experience this birth of Jesus.”
And as he prayed, a humble stable became visible in his mind’s eye. And then he saw a tiny child in the manger, surrounded by the light of God’s glory.
When St Francis finished praying, he went to the village of Greccio, near Assisi, and found his friends Giovanni and Claire.
“My friends Giovanni and Claire, if you desire that we should celebrate this year’s Christmas together at Greccio, go quickly and prepare what I tell you; for I want to enact the memory of the Infant who was born at Bethlehem and how He was bedded in the manger on hay between a donkey and an ox. I want to see all of this with my own eyes. Now I must go and pray some more.”
And so Giovanni and Claire did as Francis told them. They found a sheltered place in the woods near the village.
As a surprise for St Francis, they hung some treats for the birds in a tree to make sure that the birds would surround their little stable with songs. Then they made a temporary shelter to serve as a stable. They constructed a little manger and placed it in the stable. And then they filled the manger with hay. In the distance, they could hear the villagers singing about the birds who would come to the stable on the night of Jesus’ birth.
As night fell, Giovanni had a brilliant idea to create an even bigger surprise for St Francis!
Not only would St Francis see the manger filled with hay, but he would also see Mary, Joseph, the baby, the shepherds and their sheep, and the angels that had sung out God’s peace on that long ago night of Jesus’ birth. But Giovanni would need the help of the townspeople of Greccio to bring to life the little town of Bethlehem.
And so he hurried into the village and knocked on the door of his friend Alexandros, whose lovely wife Eliza had recently given birth.
Giovanni knocked, and when Alexandros came to the door, he said, “Alexandros, St Francis wants to see the nativity for himself tonight at the Solemn Mass. Could you and Eliza bring your wee one out to the woods where I have set up a little stable where St Francis plans to hold the Solemn Mass? Claire will tell you what to do once you get there.”
Alexandros replied, “My friend Giovanni, we would be honored to do as you say. Give us a moment to prepare. May I bring my three older children as well?”
Giovanni exclaimed, “What a marvelous idea! This young Alexandros can be a shepherd, and this young man, Owenos, a sheep! And this angelic little girl Kennetta can be an angel! Children, would you be willing to help St Francis see the birth of Jesus for himself?”
Meanwhile, as the villagers prepared to go to Solemn Mass and thought about seeing the manger for themselves, they sang Away in a Manger.
Giovanni was excited. He would ask other children in the village and their parents to help too!
So next, Giovanni went to the house of Davissimos.
Giovanni knocked, and when Johannos came to the door, Giovanni said, “My friend Johannos, St Francis wants to see the nativity for himself tonight at the Solemn Mass. Would you and your family be willing to come out into the woods where I have set up a little stable? Johannos, will you be a shepherd, along with your son Evanos? Odessia, an angel? Hollisima, a little angel? And Sydnietta, would you be a village girl coming to bring a gift for the baby Jesus and the holy family? A loaf basket of apples perhaps? Our friend Claire will tell you what to do once you get there.”
Johannos replied, “Yes, of course, we will.”
So Johannos and his family hurried to prepare.
As she prepared to go to the Solemn Mass, one of the villagers sang Angels we have heard on high, and the villagers joined in and sang along.
Giovanni thought how wonderful it would be to have another shepherd. And so he went to see if Edgaros, a young man who was visiting his grandparents, would be also be willing to help.
Giovanni knocked and said to Edgaros when he came to the door, “Edgaros, I’m so glad you have come to Greccio for Christmas! Would you help me surprise St Francis tonight at the Solemn Mass? I need another shepherd to be at the manger. Once you are ready, could you go to the little stable out in the woods that I have built? When you get there, Claire will show you what to do.”
“Ah,” thought Giovanni to himself. Another little shepherd and another little sheep would be a nice touch at the manger. And so he hurried to the home of the Foxittis. “Greetings, Judetta,” Giovanni said, “ St Francis wants to see the nativity for himself tonight at the Solemn Mass and I need some more shepherds and a sheep. Would you be and Michaelango be shepherds and your little Karissama a sheep?” When you are ready, go to the stable I have built in the woods and Claire will show you what to do.”
As the villagers gathered in the town square for the procession to the manger, they sang a hymn–While shepherds watched their flocks by night.
Giovanni decided that he needed another little shepherd, and also a few more townspeople to bring gifts to the Holy Family, and so he visited two more homes in the village. First, he went to the home of the Felicianos, who owned a large vineyard at the edge of the village.
“Greetings, Ramonos!” Giovanni said, when Ramonos came to the door. “May I ask if your lovely daughter Talia could help us surprise St Francis tonight at the Solemn Mass? He is hoping to see the nativity with his own eyes and so I have set up a small stable in the woods. Would Talia bring a pitcher of your fine wine to the Holy Family to warm them on this cold night? Talia, please get ready and hurry to the stable, and Claire will tell you what to do once you get there.
Giovanni now arrived at the home of the Fishuttis and knocked on their door.
“Ah, Fishuttis! I am in need of your help! St Francis wants to see the nativity for himself tonight at the Solemn Mass and I need help from Tuckoni, Zekos, and Kimberata. Young Zekos, would you be a shepherd boy? And Tuckoni , I need a villager bearing a gift of bread to the Holy Family. I know that you, Tuckoni, are a wonderful baker. Have you baked some bread today? Yes? Could you take some to the manger? Would you two be willing to help? Yes? Then when you are ready, go to the stable I have built in the woods and Claire will tell you what to do once you get there.”
In the cold air of the winter night, the villagers thought about what they could bring as a gift to this Holy Family that they were going to see. And so they sang In the Bleak Midwinter as they prepared their hearts for the journey to the manger.
Giovanni needed to light the stable scene so that St Francis could see, and so he knocked on the door of the Pogmattis. “Would you, Kenaros and you, Andreata, bring torches to the woods tonight to bring light to the stable at the Solemn Mass ?”
The Pogmattis agreed, and the villagers sang Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light .
At last, all was ready. All of the villagers had come to the woods and gathered around the stable. They waited with excitement, knowing that when St Francis came to the stable he would see the nativity with his own eyes.
As they waited for St Francis, the villagers could almost hear angels singing and playing their harps.
At last, the villagers heard the crunch of leaves as St Francis came walking through the woods to the stable.
And when he arrived, he let out a great shout of joy.
“To God be the Glory! At last, I have truly seen the nativity with my own eyes!”
As St Francis and the villagers rejoiced, the manger filled with light, and peace and goodwill filled the hearts of all who were gathered round, and the songs of the birds sounded through the night as the villagers celebrated the Solemn Mass.