Holy Spirit Province Saint-Esprit
Franciscans of Canada - Franciscains du Canada
Ordo Fratrum Minorum
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak about the Franciscan origins of the Christmas crèche. You probably already know that the re-enactment of the birth of Christ in the manger goes back to St. Francis. It shows his devotion to the incarnation, the coming of the word of God into the world in the smallness, dependence, and vulnerability of a newborn child.
It is a story that continues to inspire, and I enjoyed sharing it with others. My main focus is on what we have to learn from this about what it means to be a human person. I started with the title of a talk given, 60 years ago, by Romano Guardini: “Only those who know God know human beings.” I have always been intrigued by this title, and I keep coming back to it when I speak. Somehow, treating people right has a lot to do with what one knows about God.
To begin with, I showed some remarks by a utilitarian ethicist with somewhat radical convictions: Peter Singer from Princeton. He rejects any possibility that human beings represent a unique value, when compared with other creatures. He makes the claim that a newborn child is worth less than a mature animal, if the animal is consciously aware of its existence, which the newborn child is not. For him, it’s properties, such as consciousness, that give value, rather than the kind of being that is in front of us.
The incarnation shows us the importance of recognizing what it means to be a human person. It is not just about self-awareness and being fully conscious of one’s existence. Every human being is a person, even in its smallest and most vulnerable state. Being persons means that we transcend our material existence, that we are meant to reach out to other persons and be reached by them. It means that we are made for community, with other people and with God.
Over the years, and through reflecting of what it means to be a human person, I have gotten a bit more conscious myself about rights for non-human animals. Animals are also God’s creatures, and we share our origins with them in the history of life. Therefore, we owe them something; they have rights that must also be respected. But being a person is more than this. Being a person means being meant for community, and not only with other human persons but also with God. This is why we must respect persons always, at all stages of their life. And sadly, this respect that is due to every person is very much at risk in our society.
The occasion to speak was given to me by Focus Victoria, and St. John the Divine Anglican Church. I thank them for the opportunity to speak, and I hope that we will have many more opportunities to gather and explore our faith together. The Christmas crèche is a powerful symbol to show us how to recognize God, and how to recognize the importance of the human person. Not in power and might, but in the smallness of a little child, not even conscious of its own existence, but destined for eternal life with God.