Feast of St. Francis
Jeremiah 22: 13-16; Ps 148:7-18,Gal 6:14-18; Matt 11:25-30
Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages. (Jer 22:13)
I first met St. Francis in the form of garden statues. There are whole neighborhoods where he appears on almost every lawn, surrounded by roses, tucked discreetly under a bush, or (my childhood favorite) holding a basin of water to tempt the birds to rest on his shoulders. Those sweet images capture the way many of us think of Francis — as a sweet, gentle man wandering in nature, at one with the animals and the birds, singing ecstatic songs of praise. And it’s all true! But that’s not all there was to Francesco Bernardone; he was, first and foremost, a lover of Christ and a prophet.
Francesco’s life coincided with the transition from a society run on barter to a society run on coins. The Roman Empire, of course, had used coinage, which explains its prominence in the life of Jesus, but money fallen out of use when the Empire disintegrated. Always, there had been money for the rich, but as the practice of using coinage returned and filtered down, it opened and exacerbated the gaps between those who had and those who had not. Put simply, if you are getting your food by bartering onions for wheat, it is impossible to gather much long-term wealth, as what you have needs to be eaten before it begins to rot. But once you have the capacity to trade that wheat for a silver coin — even just a widow’s mite — it became possible for certain people to gather treasure that could last from year to year, small hoards that became large ones; dry goods which filled warehouses; invisible walls which sprang up between those who were vulnerable to every shock of bad fortune, and those who could weather the storm.
That gap — between vulnerability and shelter — defines the life of Francis. Born around 1282 to a wealthy cloth merchant, raised with the skills and ambition to become (maybe) a knight, Francis stripped himself of every mark of privilege — of everything which could separate him from the most vulnerable — or from his own fragile humanity. We in the church talk a lot about the Incarnation of Christ — about how God loved us enough to give up heaven and live among us — but we do not often wonder what it might look like for us to make a similar gesture of absolute solidarity. Francis shows us what that might take. That’s why we tame him, talk about the time he fed the birds. It’s easier than having to think about the rest of it.
In 1202, Francis took part in a military venture to defend his hometown of Assisi. Betrayed by treachery, he was taken prisoner for a year, then returned home, to find that his former luxuries had lost their luster. He suited up for another military venture, but returned home the next day, clearly in the grip of an emotional crisis. He spent months wandering the hedges and fields, then went to Rome, where he encountered a group of beggars. Francis borrowed their rags for a day and begged among them, entering the stream of their lives, then returned home transformed. A little while later, he encountered a leper in the road. At first, he turned away in disgust and in fear, but then he dismounted, gave the leper all the money he was carrying, and kissed his hand, disregarding the danger of disease. Only a few months later, he sold all he had (and some of what belonged to his father) and gave the money to the poor. Confronted by his father and brought to trial before the Bishop for theft, Francis simply stripped naked in the public piazza, handed over his clothing, and declared that from now on, God would be his only father. The Bishop kindly gave him a tunic so he did not have to leave buck naked.
Let’s pause for a moment. This is not what most of us want for our children or for ourselves. Francis’ life is not what most of us want for our children. We want them to be stable and happy, to be secure and productive. Francis’ life challenges us at a deep level. I still remember an encounter I had with a homeless man when I lived in Washington, DC. He had come to DC to confront the government over its neglect of the poor, and he was hoping I could introduce him to the President (whom, of course, I did not know). At first I dismissed him as simply crazy, but as he spoke, he told me of reading the Gospels, of selling everything, of advocating for the poor and of seeking to live like Jesus. I became more and more disquieted about my condo, my clothing, my car. By contemporary terms, this man was crazy, but by the standards of Christ, I might be the one who was utterly missing the point. That is the question St. Francis makes us ask.
Told in a vision to “rebuild my church,” Francis began to rebuild a crumbled roadside chapel, then to gather around him other men who were drawn by his embrace of a life without possessions. But he also began to build of his life a sophisticated critique of the world the way it was, saying “If we possessed property we should have need of arms for its defense, for it is the source of quarrels and lawsuits, and the love of God and of one’s neighbors finds many obstacles in it. This is why we do not desire temporal goods.” For Francis, property equalled division — and division led to violence and predatory behavior. Returning to innocence required that such division be eliminated.
Instead, Francis and his followers worked as day-laborers, coming up alongside a farmer and helping in the work at hand, without wages. Sometimes, they were given bread for their efforts; other times, they went hungry. But poor people began to see him and his followers as allies — as people who loved them and were trying to help. These days were probably the happiest in Francis’ life. Later, there would come more followers, the building of an Order, endless wrangling over who should lead and how they should live — but this time captured his vision in all its power: embracing the absolute freedom to act daily in love. And people understood it — just as they understand when Pope Francis kneels at the feet of a refugee and washes them. Certain gestures speak clearly across all times and cultures.
Francis did not live long. Near the end of his life, knowing that it was ending, he took three chosen followers and retreated to an austere mountain to fast and pray for forty days. Francis was so weakened by penance that his friends borrowed an ass from a peasant and made him ride it so he could complete his journey. Once on the mountain, Francis withdrew even from his friends, first to a place of solitude and then to one of even greater solitude. He began to experience both demonic temptations and divine visions, culminating on the Feast of the Holy Cross. The previous evening, he had prayed a dangerous prayer: that he might feel in body and in soul both the pain of Christ’s passion and the depth of Christ’s love. The next day, he saw a seraph who bore the form of a crucified man. While he was wondering how this was possible, he realized that his hands and feet were now pierced by nails and his side bore a bleeding wound. Francis covered the wounds with bandages and tried to conceal them for the rest of his life, but his friends noticed, for example, that he could no longer stand and that his tunics were stained with blood. It was the first time anyone was known to have been marked by stigmata.
Friday morning, I entered the Cathedral for the noon Eucharist, and saw in front of the altar a set of images. Each image bore a prayer for the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation: “Vibrant God, your creation explodes with the colors of the rainbow. Your peoples reveal the beauty of diversity. We remember today when the joy and dignity of a precious child was destroyed. We lament today for the childhoods lost through the residential school system. We mourn for the spirits crushed and the futures compromised. Amen.” At the foot of each image burned candles, placed there by people as a sign of prayer. I added one myself, praying not only for those children, but also for a particular one who had just died from our midst.
But as I left, I found myself wondering: What would a strong witness to the love of God look like among the divisions of our own time? A witness made not only in the form of prayers offered within our walls (prayers which I believe to be means of grace), but of lives lived differently — of lives which confront our wealth and our poverty, our culture of refugees and displaced persons and degrees of legal belonging, our destruction of the ecosystem and our dependence on its fruits — a witness which would show people the love of God in all its stark beauty? What would it look like to be a church marked by the wounds of Christ?
The wounds of Christ — the wounds Francis bore — are the cost of love in a broken world. They offer shelter to the broken and bear our wounds into the very body of Christ. They are the beauty which comes when we refuse to accept the world as we have made it, and throw our full weight behind the world God is working to bring in. Rowan Williams writes, “There is another kind of wholeness — a wholeness of identification with the needs of the world, the self-generated and self-perpetuating tortures of the human race — a wholeness of compassion…knowing one’s own incompleteness in a way that reaches out to the incompleteness of others….That is sanctity: the wholeness of giving the gift of all yourself, while not waiting till that self is fine and moral and healthy and balanced enough to expose. And if there is healing or growth toward integration, perhaps it can come only in the giving.” (“Abbé Huvelin,” pp. 183-4)