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By John J. Jalsevac

My personal preparation for this Christmas began a little earlier, perhaps, than most.

Two months ago I was in Assisi, that blessed, enchanted town that once gave rise to perhaps the holiest and most popular saint in history – St. Francis. For three days myself and my twenty-eight fellow classmates from Christendom College tramped about from basilica to basilica, and shrine to shrine, through the cobblestone streets and alleys of the medieval city. And for the three days we were absolutely silent, allowing our undistracted minds to concentrate on the only things that really matter. It was peaceful, blessedly peaceful.

Fr Dylan preaching retreat to students in Assisi

For those three days of retreat we prayed, and we thought, and we listened to our beloved British retreat director, Fr. Dylan, as he guided our thoughts and prayers with short, insightful reflections on the life of St. Francis. One of those reflections, perhaps the most central, was on Francis’ devotion to the nativity, and the crib of Christ and all that the crib of Christ means. Father Dylan assured us that without understanding this we could not understand St. Francis, nor, for that matter, could we possibly understand Christ.

I suppose the fact that it is St. Francis who bequeathed the crèche to the world is not as widely known as it once was. But it is a fact. It was in 1223Â that St. Francis, consumed by his desire to give to the people of Grecia some of the joy in his own heart at the thought of Christ’s birth, sought the approval of the pope, and once having been granted it, collected the hay and the necessary animals and prepared history’s first and most famous crèche.

We are told in St. Bonaventure’s biography of Francis that that night “The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy…Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.”

For St. Francis the crib was the necessary companion of the cross. The humble wood of the crib marked the beginning of Christ’s life, and the wood of the cross, the end. Both made absolutely certain that there could be no mistake about what the God-man, the Saviour, was really about.

He was about humility and poverty. But the nativity most of all reminds us that not only was He about humility and poverty, but ultimately, and most importantly, about life. The whole purpose of His mission on earth was life, and that tiny, helpless babe, and that humble crib, reminds us always of that fact.

John JalsevacA week ago I returned from my three months studying in Rome. It is impossible now to shake the thoughts and sensations of those three months, that were more of an extended retreat than a semester of study. It is impossible not to realize with a renewed conviction, that absolutely nothing about this time of year makes any sense without Christ. And it is impossible not to realize that ultimately nothing else about this time of year other than Christ and his birth, and the joy and mystery of that birth, matters even one whit.

So, it is good, I think, that we fight tooth and nail for a time to “keep Christ in Christmas”, standing firmly against the world’s hatred and it’s latest attempt to expurgate the God-child, as it has always done. But it is important, I think, that we not let that fight become a fight for fight’s sake, or let that fight consume us.

The world shall pursue death, as it always has, be it only the symbolic, and yet perhaps more devastating and painful death of materialism. But when Christmas day arrives, as it shall in two days, let us, who are head-over-heels in love with life, with the fullness of life, with all life, be prepared to celebrate the greatest life that ever was, and take comfort in knowing that God so loves life that he was willing to live the life of a man, here on earth, 2,000 years ago. And let us rejoice that it was only through the crib that He was able to defeat death forever through the mystery of the cross.

As a suffix, perhaps, to this story, I think it appropriate to add that it was while I was on retreat in Assisi that my new and first niece, Colette Jalsevac, was born to my brother Paul and his wife Meg.

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