'I hate Christmas!'

An article in one of Britain’s leading daily newspapers, the Daily Mail, reported that 'One in seven can't wait for the twenty-seventh'.

Our son Andrew is 'the one' in those seven. Each year Christmas comes to him like a dark cloud. It’s not that he hates what it stands for, rather what the commercial world has done to this Holy Season.

One unfortunate feature of the commercialisation for Christmas, is that Advent can be easily pushed into the background. Here in Australia, an added pressure is that it comes at an important and busy time for those working on the land. Plus, December leads us into the major holiday period in this nation.

In recent years I have observed an increasing interest in the production and use of Advent literature, similar to the way we undertake Lenten Studies.

One such book is Joy to the World by Joyce Huggett © 2001 (Eagle Publishing) from which the following extract is taken, with permission:

In Our Preparations

One of my favourite stories about Christmas preparations, though, stems from the thirteenth century and centres around an initiative taken by St Francis. Near the hermitage in the Italian village of Greccio where Francis lived towards the end of his life was a cave that was very similar to the grotto in Bethlehem where it is believed that Jesus was born. One Christmas Francis found himself longing that he and his fellow villagers would experience what God did for us in giving us his one and only Son. To achieve this aim, he decided to turn 'his' cave into the kind of stable where he believed Jesus was born. He shared his vision with the Lord of Greccio and asked him to have a manger built, to fill it with straw and hay and have it placed in the cave. He also asked his aristocratic friend to send animals to the cave: an ass, some oxen and some sheep. These were to stand either side of the manger. At midnight on Christmas Eve, they would have a celebration of Holy Communion using the manger as the holy table.

Meanwhile, invitations to come to the cave at midnight were sent to each of the peasants in the valley, all the hillmen of the small towns that looked down on Greccio and every brother in each of the hermitages. They came. Some carried flaming torches, others brought candles, many sang hymns and carols. 'The forest resounded with their voices,' recalls Bonaventura, a Companion of St Francis. 'And that memorable night was made glorious by many brilliant lights and psalms of praise.'

Francis radiated deep-down joy. One version of the story claims that, during the service, with the animals standing by, the priest placed the bread and the wine on the straw and all the people sank to their knees in wonder, love and praise. There in the cave, they sensed the presence of Emmanuel - God with us: God lying in the straw in the form of bread and wine.

Another version of the story claims that, when the villagers arrived, they saw by the light of their torches, a baby lying in the manger, wrapped in strips of cloth. He was kept warm by the steamy breath of the farm animals. Francis stood close to the manger overcome with love - enraptured. Meanwhile, a member of the 'congregation' was given a vision of a lifeless baby lying in a manger. In the vision, Francis went to the child and touched him. The child woke up 'as from a deep sleep'. The crowd understood immediately what the vision meant. Jesus had been forgotten by many of the villagers but, through this 'nativity play', Francis had rekindled in the hearts of those among whom he lived, a heart-love for the child of Bethlehem.

The story reminds me of an occasion when I was visiting a friend in hospital. It was Christmas Eve. After I'd given my friend a farewell kiss and a small Christmas gift, I wandered into the hospital chapel to pray. A nun was there. Quietly and prayerfully she was putting in place the Christmas crib - re-enacting in her own way the tradition St Francis unwittingly started. The way she arranged the shepherds and their sheep, the oxen and the manger, filled me with a sense of awe and wonder that resolved into heart adoration and worship. On this occasion I was the one who tuned afresh into the presence of Emmanuel, God with us, in such a way that I could do nothing but gasp in wonder, love and praise.