December 24, 2013

IN DAYS of old (1947 to 1956, to be exact), there was a weekly radio program called “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” It consisted of narratives from the Bible, mostly from the life of Jesus, presented with the urgent energy of radio drama and the sort of background music, spirited dialogue and sound effects that made it a good deal more compelling than Sunday school. It was widely popular for a time, and even nine years after it had run its course, Hollywood saw fit to make an expensive epic movie bearing the title. But the film did poorly at the box office and got reviews in the highbrow journals that today would be called snarky. It was 1965; times had changed.

Yet one Bible story has remained in the popular consciousness through all the changes in society (ours and many others): the simple account of a family, far from home, seeking shelter for the birth of a child and seeing in that child hope for a new start and a better world. It is a tale with universal appeal extending beyond any one faith or doctrine, a story of love and triumph over adversity and also of humility, of the good to be found in the most modest of circumstances.

It is surely this last quality that accounts for much of the worldwide acclaim for the new Roman Catholic pope, Francis, who took his name in honor of Francis of Assisi, a 13th-century saint known for preaching reverence for all living things. Pope Francis’s acts of humility — physical displays of love and respect for everyone, regardless of caste or condition, a message of tolerance and his frank admission that, in some things at least, he needs further guidance and understanding — have made him a revered figure far beyond his church. Much of what he says and does expresses values shared by people of all faiths, or of none. The pope’s appeal is in his identification with everyone as a creature of God.

Francis of Assisi was himself a popularizer of sorts in 13th-century Italy: He created the first crèche, or manger scene. Church histories relate that Francis needed to conduct a Christmas service outdoors because the chapel in the small mountain town he was visiting was too small for the expected crowd. He got the idea to stage a sort of tableau, complete with an ox and donkey and the manger as an altar. By some accounts, Francis was moved to tears by the scene, and he was not alone. The living Christmas story was taken up in many towns and villages, which created their own manger scenes for the season. Their basic appeal lay in their warmth, humanity and simplicity, an enduring reflection of both the “comfort and joy” of the carol and also of the spirit expressed in a seasonal exhortation last week from Pope Francis: “Let us act so that our brothers and sisters never feel alone.”