Legends of Saints and Birds – A Christmas Tale

Hitherto there has been a legend of a Saint for each month, sometimes more than one, but for bleak December, when the birds sit huddled together on the bare tree branches, and the ground is frozen hard, there is no other Saint of whom to tell you – no Saint, that is, of whom any kindness done to beast or bird is recorded, and whose day is in December. But this is the month of the Nativity; in it our Blessed Lord came from heaven to be born as a little helpless baby in the stable at Bethlehem, so that all folk might know and love Him and be redeemed from their sins. Therefore, as December is our Blessed Lord’s birthday month, hear more tales of one who was His true disciple, Francis of Assisi. Now, Francis was always mindful of the pattern life of our Lord, always loving to His creatures, so it was small wonder that on Christ’s birthday the Saint should wish that people should be kind to each other and to the beasts and birds, for he had more reverence for Christmas than for any other festival, and this is what he said:

“I would,” said he, “that all governors of the towns and the lords of castles and villages should be bound every year on Christmas Day to compel men to throw wheat and other grain, so that our sister larks and the other birds might have food on so solemn a day. And for the reverence of the Son of God, Who rested on that night between the ox and the ass in the manger, whoever shall have oxen and asses should on that night give them good fodder. Also on Christmas Day the rich men should give food to their poorer neighbours.” And it was a great delight to Francis to make in the churches of the Order a representation of the manger at Bethlehem, on the Feast of the Nativity. For himself loving our Blessed Lord so greatly, the Saint fain would have led all folk to do likewise, and he judged that the sight of however lowly a presentation of the Christ-child in His crib might win more hearts than much preaching.

So one year, on the Eve of the Feast, this was done in the hermitage of Greccio. The peasants wended their way to Greccio, singing carols as they went through the forest, for Francis loved to hear the melodies of both birds and men, being himself ever the most joyous of God’s servants. Then, when they had come to the church, they found a stable with an ox and an ass tied to the manger, and Saint Francis spake to them about that inn at Bethlehem and of the Christ-child and His sweet Mother, so that the hearts of all who heard him were touched, and the tears ran down the faces of the men and women. Even the little children wept tears of joy and thankfulness.

Now, as a knight called Giovanni, who had given the ox and the ass and stable, watched Francis kneeling by the empty manger, a wonderful thing happened. For it seemed to him that he saw in the manger a most fair Child lying. And the Child, waking from slumber and perceiving the Saint bending over the manger, his face aflame with joy, stretched forth Its little hands to him.

To this day in England and other lands, if you were to go into some churches on Christmas Eve, you might see an image of the stable at Bethlehem, as in those days long ago when Francis, the little Bedesman of Christ, thought that to see the lowly manger might save folk from falling into the grievous heresy of denying that the Son of God was born of a virgin for our salvation.

It was at Alvernia, that rock which towers above the valley of the Arno, that Saint Francis received such token from his Lord as to be made perfect in outward likeness to his Saviour – in so far as a frail man may resemble Him who is both God and man, and it happened in this wise:

Francis, with three of his brethren that were most dear to him, went up to Alvernia to keep the forty days’ Fast of Saint Michael and All Angels, for this lonely rock had been given to him for a hermitage. Now, as Francis rested under an oak, for the way was steep and stony, the birds flew down to him, fluttering on to his head and his shoulders, even into his lap and about his feet.

“Not ill-pleased is our Lord that we have come to dwell here, I think,” said Francis, “seeing with what glee our little sisters the birds greet us.”

Then he arose and wended his way up the mountain-track, the birds circling round him in much joy.

And the brethren built him a cell at Alvernia, where he might dwell alone in prayer, for it had been shown to Francis that soon he would die. A while later the Saint abode in a yet more lonely spot, communing with his Saviour, his only companion a falcon.

Here it was on the day of Holy Cross that the transfiguration befell him, for early in the morning, kneeling with his face turned towards the Sacred East, Francis besought the Lord Jesus to grant him two graces before he died. And the one grace was that he might feel in his body the torture which his Lord had borne for him in His Passion; the other was that he might feel in his heart the exceeding love for which Christ was willing to bear such torture. Even so was it granted to Francis; for in his hands and feet were imprinted the marks of the cruel nails, in his side was the gash of the spear-thrust. But of the agony and rapture of those wounds no tongue can tell.

And thus was the little poor man of Christ transfigured into the visible semblance of Him he loved so well, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

– taken from Legends of Saints and Birds by Agnes Aubrey Hilton