Holism Is at the Heart of the Nativity: St. Francis Teaches Us to Love the Incarnation in All Its Forms

By Heffern, Rich | National Catholic Reporter, December 26, 2003 | Go to article overview

Holism Is at the Heart of the Nativity: St. Francis Teaches Us to Love the Incarnation in All Its Forms


Heffern, Rich, National Catholic Reporter


Everyone loves the bird-bath saint. St. Francis' image graces many a front lawn and garden. This popular saint was a fruit of the blossoming of Christian compassion for nature and enthusiasm for poverty that took place in the 13th century. The Little Poor Man of Assisi's practical love for all creation has endured for over eight centuries.

Francis' biographer, Thomas of Celano, noted that of all religious solemnities Christmas was the saint's favorite. He called it "the Feast of Feasts, the day when God became a little child and nourished himself with the milk of a woman."

The Poverello, in fact, invented the Christmas Nativity scene. When he and his friars had retreated to the Greccio region in central Italy, Francis one Christmas set up a real crib with some hay, with an ox and an ass, like those that held company with the child Jesus. Francis' deep love for and devotion to Christ's incarnation led him to this creative act. The people of the countryside joined the friars, bearing torches and candles in the night, to honor the Incarnation. To this day, when the Christmas season approaches we find ourselves placing those plaster figures in the manger, saving the little infant for last and then reverently laying him in his cradle.

Francis prefigured such Christian theologians and thinkers as Frs. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry who urge us to remember the sacramental nature of creation. Francis' spirituality was deeply incarnational.

Russian writer and Nobel Prize winner Boris Pasternak wrote: "Because pf Christ, we humans no longer die in the ditch like dogs." Because we are made in the image and likeness of God, humans and our human-scale enterprises matter. Human endeavors and activities are the arena in which we lead lives that are profoundly spiritual. What's the Christian religion's bottom line? The Incarnation means that human life is intimately connected, in ways that are a mystery to us, with divine life.

Poet and farmer Wendell Berry wrote a wonderful book called What Are People For? In it he asks pertinent, probing questions: Do communities and neighborhoods have spiritual value? What is the proper relationship between the scale of human activities and the estate of nature? Do we have the right to plow under topsoil to construct parking lots? …

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