A few years ago I was in Rome for Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent. I went to Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. Afterwards I waited for Pope Francis to appear at the window of his study in the Apostolic Palace for the traditional Sunday Angelus. I noticed that St. Peter’s Square was unusually crowded and that there were great numbers of children.
After a brief greeting Pope Francis asked everyone present to raise their Bambinelli for a blessing. Ever since Saint Pope Paul VI started the Blessing of the Bambinelli in 1969 every pope after him has continued the tradition. To my great delight the people around me took a baby Jesus out of their pocket or purse and lifted it up so Pope Francis could bless it. I wish I had brought one of mine.
Nativities or crèches are very popular in Italy and all around the world. The popularity of this tradition is often credited to St. Francis. In 1223, anxious to return the focus of the Christmas festivities to Jesus he built his own life size nativity in a cave in Greccio near Assisi. It is believed that he modeled his nativity after a manger he had seen in Bethlehem. It is not clear if he found a live infant or used a carved image of a baby. Either way, he placed the baby Jesus on a bed of hay between an ox and a donkey.
According to his biographer, Thomas of Celano, word of this went out to the people of the town who arrived carrying torches and candles. One of the friars began celebrating Mass. Thomas of Celano wrote that St. Francis “stood before the manger…overcome with love and filled with a wonderful happiness…”
For Saint Francis, the baby Jesus in the manger was intended to recall the hardships Jesus suffered even as an infant. In this early suffering Francis saw a foreshadowing of the hardships Jesus was to suffer as an adult. Thus St. Francis shows us a Jesus who became truly human, sharing our suffering and pain and ultimately our death.
On December 16, 2018 which is Gaudete Sunday or the third Sunday of Advent we invite you to bring the Baby Jesus from your home nativity. Like Pope Francis does in Rome we will bless these Bambinelli at the end of the 9:30am and 11:30am Mass.
As we behold the baby Jesus in our nativities at home or around The Basilica, may we like Saint Francis be “overcome with love and filled with a wonderful happiness” because we know that we are gazing upon the image of the one who through his life, death and resurrection showed us the path to salvation.