Sermon for the Feast of St Francis of Assisi
Tobias Haller BSG
Convent of Saint Helena, Vails Gate
Ecclesiasticus 50:1-7 + Psalm 37:24-33 + Galatians 6:14-18 + Matthew 16:24-27
It is somewhat ironic that at the deacons’ retreat and on the feast of St. Francis the deacon we should hear a reading about Simon the high priest — which goes on to wax enthusiastic in its description of how absolutely fabulous he was in his high priestly vestments. This is especially ironic in light of Francis’ literal rejection of such finery, but I suppose the intent was to focus on Francis as a restorer of the church. You will recall that Francis had a vision in which the figure of Christ on the cross charged him to rebuild his church — and Francis took this literally at first and started to rebuild the ruined chapel. Only later would it become clear to Francis and to others that his task went far beyond historic building preservation!
But Francis would have shunned the finery of the high priest, and it is in his character as someone who sat lightly with the things of this world, someone committed to radical poverty, that I want to look at Francis the deacon and friar. He knew the naked truth that if you have nothing to hold you down you can be free to fly, to move with the Spirit as the Spirit wills, and gracefully to change to suit the needs and circumstances into which God leads you. Francis’ life was one of fairly constant but always graceful — that is, grace-filled — change, but always with one goal, and he went through many phases in his pursuit of his single-minded effort to become like Christ.
He began life as a well-off young man named Giovanni, but soon got the nickname Francis — Frenchy — which makes him sound like a refugee from the cast of “Happy Days”; the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, his head full of visions of being a war hero — finding the hard reality of war another thing altogether; then falling ill and having a conversion — much to the embarrassment of his family.
You know the rest of the story — you may even have seen the movie! But the thing that drove that story, that guided Francis along, was his pursuit of likeness with Christ. As you know, this pursuit ended with his being marked in his own body with the wounds of Christ — the stigmata. Our epistle and gospel today attest to this particular aspect of his life — his self-identification with Christ, losing himself in Christ, and his embrace of the cross and the wounds Christ bore upon it. That fits in well with the theme I have stressed in my other reflections: the motto, “it’s not about you.” Francis lost his life in order to find it.
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Francis came to be known by the title “alter Christus” — another Christ — a phrase that has in the popular mind become more associated with the priest, especially as celebrant of the Holy Eucharist. But Francis was known by that title for centuries, and Pope Pius XI made it official. It is good to be reminded that, in spite of the common application of this title to priests, there is also a very ancient tradition that reserves it for the deacon: in the early fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions the bishop is analogized with God the Father, the presbyters with the apostles, but it is the deacon who is seen in the likeness of Christ — remember how the deacon would stand in the door between the congregation and the sanctuary? and how in those early days the deacon was sent hither and yon into the world about the work of the church as the bishop’s agent? And how the deacon sends the congregation out on their apostolic mission? It is the deacon who stands for “another Christ” at work in the church and the world.
What I want to focus on is the manner in which the deacon Francis did that, how he went about his work, how he changed in himself but also brought about change in others — gracefully, and more importantly, in the manner of Christ. For Christ was a master both of the eloquent story and powerful words, but perhaps more importantly of the boldly acted gesture — the dramatic and striking action. And so was Francis of Assisi. He performed many such dramatic acts in his life, but I want to cite just one.
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It was at the very beginning of his call, the time young Frenchy’s father threatened to disinherit him. And Francis, standing in the public square with the bishop looking on — the bishop his father had called on to talk some sense into the boy — performed the dramatic gesture of disinheriting himself, stripping off even his clothing, that embarrassment of riches, to become a new creation. I am reminded of a Renaissance painting of this incident in which the kindly bishop has draped his cope over the naked young Francis. This was in the days before Safe Church Workshops. But you may also recall how Franco Zeffirelli’s film made a particular point of this stripping of clothing — Francis’ father being a cloth merchant. Throughout that film the clothing of the clerics and the citizens imprisons them, and only Francis is free — born again in his birthday suit.
Francis performed a dramatic gesture, and among other things it convinced everyone that he really meant it. He was telling the truth, the naked truth, about what he meant to do. That is important — being disinherited in the 12th century when you had no other visible means of support was no easy choice. Francis, however, had invisible means of support — he was eager to follow in the footsteps of his Lord and Savior, and he was clothed from above in the garment of grace, the Emperor’s new clothes: not of the Holy Roman Emperor but of God the Emperor of the Universe, of Christ the King, and Christ the Servant. He was already beginning to take up the only ornament that mattered: the cross of responsibility and dedication day by day. He had come to see that gaining the whole world — or even keeping his inheritance — would cost him his true life, the true life he knew he was called to live with God. He could not live that life bound and swathed in the clothing that represented all that was old, the outward and visible sign of his old life, the clothing that had come to feel like a mummy’s wrappings or a shroud. He was ready to lose everything that he might boast of nothing but the cross of Jesus.
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I said I was going to recount just one incident — but there is a sequel to this story of Francis’ divestiture in the town square, from the very end of Francis’ life, another dramatic gesture that not only echoes and bookends the first, but which continues the theme of naked truthfulness — of absolute authenticity and radical poverty. Like the first it was as much an instruction to those who stood by as it was for Francis himself.
As Francis was dying, he asked his brothers to remove his habit and lay him on the ground, so he could die, strictly speaking, without owning anything, as naked as the day he was born — or born again. They did so briefly, but couldn’t bear it for long, seeing their beloved brother sick and shivering on the ground. They pressed him to resume the tunic and cowl he had worn so long. Eventually he agreed he would do so, but on the sole condition that they understand he was only borrowing it. Even at that, he insisted that as Sister Death finally came for him, they strip off even this borrowed clothing, so that he could pass into the life of the world to come unburdened by any earthly property, and completely free. The dramatic gesture continued to the end — as much for them, and for us, as for himself.
For we come into this world with nothing, we leave with nothing. All we have is ourselves — our souls and bodies. We can choose to seek ourselves, to satisfy ourselves, to preserve ourselves — or we can choose to offer ourselves, as reasonable, holy and living offering for the good of others and the good of the world God loved so much that he gave himself up for it — for us. We who bear his name should not be afraid to do as he did. We can strip ourselves of all that encumbers us, all that disguises us even from ourselves, changing ourselves back to our birthday suit — to find the naked truth of our authentic self, the self that we save only by losing it in service to others. This was the path that Francis the deacon chose, following in the way of the cross his Lord had gone before. This is the path we are called to follow, and should we ever be doubtful of the way, the signpost is plain for all of us to see.
It is the cross, and Christ upon it.+