Great Expectations by Julie A. Ferraro

Christmas at the Nativity
By Pope Francis
New City Press, 2023
$17.95   140 pp.

In the year 1223, in a cave near the town of Greccio, Italy, Saint Francis of Assisi created the first Christmas crèche. Present around the hay-filled manger were a donkey and an ox. Legend has it that the Christ child appeared in the manger in response to Saint Francis’s devotion to the love God showed in becoming human.

Christmas at the Nativity honors the 800th anniversary of that simple celebration, and draws from writings and talks given by Pope Francis over the past 10 years during weekly Angelus ceremonies, general audiences, homilies, and more. Besides the nativity, his wisdom regarding Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, the stable, the angels, the Magi, and even Herod are shared.

Francis has visited Greccio twice, as he writes in the introduction: “On both occasions, I felt a special emotion emanating from the grotto, where a medieval fresco can be admired, one side of it depicting the night of Bethlehem, and the other depicting the night of Greccio.”

He adds, “The excitement of that sight prompts me to delve deeper into the Christian mystery that loves to hide within what is infinitely small.” He also notes that littleness, as found in the Jesus’s incarnation, “is the way to encounter God.”

Citing the wonder and awe humans of all ages feel at observing a nativity scene, Francis’s words are addressed in various chapters to children, youth and young adults, and older adults. He reminds us all that we should strive to be saints not as pictured on postcards, but of flesh and blood, filled with joy at the sign given by God.

Francis encourages people to set up nativity scenes both in their homes and where they can be publicly seen. He acknowledges the creativity that goes into many crèches, including the materials used to create them. He’s not just speaking “off the cuff”—his own devotion to the Christmas tradition is clear, and he’s done his research, citing Thomas of Celano, Saint Francis’s first biographer, who wrote (possibly from witnessing the event firsthand) about that night in Greccio.

In the chapter on Mary, Pope Francis recounts Scripture passages about how her “Yes” made it possible for Jesus to be born. Without her, in fact, the destiny of humanity would not have been changed by her divine Son’s abiding love. Francis describes how the ever-present clash between “the ideal and the real” should inspire us to imitate Mary’s quiet presence, keeping and pondering things in our hearts. In this way, she binds together both the beautiful and the unpleasant, uniting instead of dividing by discerning the greater meaning in daily life.

Through Joseph, readers are prompted to welcome the surprises God gives each one of us with patience and faith. Parents, in taking Joseph’s example, should be the primary educators of their children, nurturing them not just in good manners, but in faith, Francis writes.

Perhaps the most often used word in this book is “humility,” which Francis applies to the town of Bethlehem as well as the stable where Jesus was born. The shepherds, too, were of humble origin, yet they were the first to hear from the angels of Jesus’s birth. This first indication that the King of Kings was not born to cater to the wealthy and prestigious, but to share himself with those on the margins, speaks so profoundly to our current moment when the recent Synod on Synodality raised this very topic.

These pages remind all humans to be watchful, to listen, to see Christ in every place and every person. “Jesus is the straight line of love that gives and saves,” Pope Francis writes, “the love that brings light to our lives and peace to our hearts.”

This volume is a perfect read for Advent, as the world waits for the coming of the infant on Christmas and, even more so, for the peace that such love can bring to all humanity. ♦

Julie A. Ferraro has been a journalist for over 30 years, covering diverse beats for secular newspapers as well as writing for many Catholic publications. A mother and grandmother, she currently lives in Idaho. Her column, “God ‘n Life,” appears regularly in Today’s American Catholic.

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