“She gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger” (Lk 2:7) Eight centuries ago, Saint Francis had the grace to come as a pilgrim to the Holy Land. It was on that occasion that he met, unarmed, the Sultan of Egypt and announced the Gospel to him. Thanks to that meeting, he could probably visit this special place, the manger in Bethlehem, where the Virgin Mary laid her Son Jesus with love and care after having given birth to him and wrapped him in poor clothes. Here Saint Francis probably contemplated what we and the pilgrims can still see today: the manger and the altar on which the Eucharist is celebrated. Perhaps that is why he then wanted to celebrate Christmas in Greccio with these simple elements: an empty manger and an altar to celebrate the Eucharist. Pope Francis also reminded us of this during his recent visit to Greccio and with the Apostolic Letter dedicated to the Admirable Sign of the Nativity scene. In many of his “Writings”, Saint Francis himself speaks to us at the same time of the birth of Jesus from Mary and of his humble presence in the Eucharist, as in Admonition I, in which he tells us: “Behold, every day the Son of God humbles himself, as when He descended from the royal seat into the womb of the Virgin; every day He Himself comes to us apparently humble; every day He descends from the bosom of the Father to the altar into the hands of the priest.” (St. Francis, Ammonizione I,16-18: FF 144). This place, the manger of Bethlehem, this year is enriched by Pope Francis’ gift to us, the relic of the holy cradle in which Mary laid the child Jesus. This, and the altar on which we celebrate the Eucharist daily, must therefore and first of all fill our hearts with amazement and gratitude. What a wonder: the Son of God who became a child continues to give Himself to us in a humble way through the Eucharist. Thus each altar becomes the manger of Bethlehem, the hands of the priest become the manger of Bethlehem, each of us becomes the manger of Bethlehem in which the Son of God is laid with love in His humility and modesty. May the celebration of Christmas lead us to follow and imitate the humility of God: may the manger and the altar, the place where we receive the daily gift of the Son of God who humiliates himself for us, commit us also to making ourselves small, to giving ourselves, every day. To those who feel alone, abandoned and humiliated, to those who suffer because of arrogance, violence and war, to those who feel that joy and hope are fading away, to each of you and to your families: Merry Christmas from the Manger of Bethlehem, Merry Christmas from the Altar of Bethlehem, Merry Christmas from the place where the Son of God became a child for our salvation!
Br Francesco Patton – Custos of the Holy Land