Church Life | Holidays | Opinion

What the Church can learn from St. Francis of Assisi at Christmas

Sharing an encounter with God

Since I was young, I’ve longed to see Jesus. I’ve longed to encounter God in a very physical way. 

And most every Alberta winter, when the sky is just a scroll of black parchment and the stars wink of some ancient secret, when the path beneath our feet crunches of snow and ice and the air is sharp like a thousand prickles, I get to do just that. 

I get to encounter the Christ Child. 

It’s a stepping-out on the road to Bethlehem. It’s an outdoor journey into the live Nativity done every year near our home, and every year the soldiers make our children huddle close and the beggars jangling their cans for coins make me long to give and the warmth of a stable smelling of straw and faint sweat in which a Mary, Joseph and Christ child abide – donkey beside –causes Scripture to unfurl and I can nearly feel Yahweh’s breath on my skin.

Living proof

I want to know Jesus as much as possible while here on this earth. And I believe that’s what St. Francis of Assisi wanted too, and why he started the outdoor Creche back in Italy in 1223. He cried, “Knowledge and theory are not sufficient! Encounter God! Encounter God!” And as Ian Morgan Cron writes in Chasing Francis, “Just when the church was on the verge of collapse, that voice reawakened Europe’s faith.”

Friends, the North American church is on the verge of collapse. And we desperately need a reawakening. We need to encounter God. 

As Cron puts it, in the Middle Ages “the church had lost credibility because it was pursuing wealth and power like everyone else. When people compared the way Francis and friars lived with the lifestyle of the culture and church, they said, ‘These guys are the genuine articles. They’re living proof that the gospels are true. Jesus really is all you need to find meaning and joy in life.’”

When was the last time we encountered someone who made us say that? When was the last time someone looked at our lives and said, “You’re living proof that the gospels are true!”?

Oh, how I long to be that person. The one who gives everything away, including the shirt off my back, simply because Jesus told me to. The one who offers a cold cup of water to my enemy. The one who welcomes strangers into my home and who visits people in prison and who has nothing but grace for everyone. I long to not only read the gospels, but to obey them. To put them into action. To make our Christian faith credible again.

The ‘Living Tongue’

Francis and his friars didn’t criticize the church. Instead, they just lived the way they thought the gospel should be lived out, and that was message enough. They made Scripture come to life. In addition to putting together the first live Nativity, because “Francis wanted to wake up his audience to the true miracle of the birth of God,” he also insisted on speaking in an ordinary dialect so ordinary people could understand him (versus the priests who spoke in Latin). Francis used stories and metaphors to preach; to teach his listeners that bad company leads to bad habits, “he’d stick his hand in a bucket of tar and pull it out so you could see it for yourself.” If he was trying to teach about the love of money being the root of all evil, “he’d have one of his friars drop coins out of his mouth into a pile of horse dung.” And if there was no other way to make his point, he would pick up an instrument and sing it. He was called the “Living Tongue.”

Do we care enough about the Word of God to go to all lengths to help people understand it?

This Christmas, step out into the crisp winter night and look up at the stars. Look up and remember the God who created you, who named you one of Abraham’s children, who sent his Son to die for you so you might live forever. 

And encounter God – that others too, might know him, and be saved.

  • Emily Wierenga is a wife and mother who is passionate about the church and lives in northern Alberta. She is the author of the memoirs Atlas Girl and Making it Home (Baker Books), and the founder of the non profit The Lulu Tree. To learn more, please visit

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