Did you know for the first 1200 years of Christianity the greatest feast of celebration was Easter not Christmas? Obviously, Easter is still central to Christianity, but by the 13th century this monk by the name of Francis really shook things up a bit. He believed that we need not wait for God to love us through the cross and resurrection; but that the whole thing began with the incarnate love found at the very birth of the Christ child. So, we really have the Franciscans to thank for popularizing Christmas as a major feast within the church!
In his account of St Francis’ life, Thomas of Celano, who knew the saint, describes an interesting interaction between the beloved saint and one of the early friars, Brother Morico.
“Francis observed the birthday of the child Jesus with inexpressible eagerness over all other feasts, saying, ‘It is the feast of feasts, on which God, having become a tiny infant, clung to human breasts.’ When the question rose about eating meat that day, since Christmas was a Friday, he [Francis] replied to Brother Morico, ‘You sin, brother, calling the day on which the child is born to us a day of fast. It is my wish that even the walls should eat meat on such a day; and if they cannot, they should be smeared with meat on the outside.’”
What enthusiasm! Francis wanted everyone to celebrate abundantly at Christmas. He longed for the rich to feed the poor even more generously that usual. “‘If I could speak to the emperor, I would ask that a general law be made that all who can, should scatter corn and grain along the roads so that the birds might have an abundance of food on that day of such great solemnity, especially our sisters the larks’”
In this annus horribilis I find it hard to summon my usual holiday fervor let alone Francis’ gusto. Every one of my seasonal traditions have been upended and it’s all too easy to just sit and wait out the end of 2020 without much fanfare. Then I am reminded of the image Francis provides — the creator of the cosmos poured into human flesh … bound in the limitations of a small, vulnerable, infant. A baby clinging to a young woman for warmth, food, life… The sheer humility with which God ties Gods self to creation in every way and in every moment.
Christmas is not about all the trappings we have made it about from carols to gifts to decorations. As Richard Rohr says, “Incarnation meant not just that God became Jesus; God said yes to the material universe. God said yes to physicality.” We can celebrate and welcome that Universal Christ because, like Francis, we can learn to see it in every blade of grass, every bird, every human. Now that’s something truly worth celebrating!
May God reveal the Universal Christ to you this Christmas and may you celebrate abundantly in your heart this season and always!