December 2006 – On the Incarnation

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

December 2006

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

May the Lord give you Peace!

Those who are already aware that Saint Francis of Assisi is the originator of the widespread tradition among Christians of placing a Nativity scene in their homes and churches at Christmastime know that the crib of our saviour’s birth and the cross upon which he died for love of us were the two most vital symbols of his spirituality.

It was the significance of these that caused me to name my first spiritual reflection, “The crib and cross”; then later to name my website; and finally to discern the call to develop a related set of ministries, each under one umbrella, Crib and Cross Franciscan Ministries. Lately, there has been a growing feeling that something new is emerging, a community of the crib and cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

None of this would have been possible without the insight and courage of an enigmatic young man living in Assisi some 800 years ago. This has only occurred because Saint Francis had the audacity to pursue his desire to understand evermore profoundly the meaning of the Gospel for his own life, and later communicated his understanding and passionate response to others in so vivid a fashion that his joy at grasping God’s unfathomable love radiated across space and time. Its power was so far reaching that it touches us here today almost as it would have seized the people of Greccio in the year 1223.

In an Advent message last year, Pope Benedict affirmed the enduring value of the poverello’s historic gesture: “Saint Francis of Assisi was so overwhelmed by the mystery of the Incarnation that he wanted to present it again in Greccio with the living manger, thus becoming the initiator of a long popular tradition which still keeps its value for evangelization today. The crib can help us, in fact, to understand the secret of the true Christmas, because it speaks of humility and the merciful goodness of Christ, who though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor. (2Cor.8:9) His poverty enriches those who embrace it and Christmas brings joy and peace to those who, as the shepherds, accept in Bethlehem the words of the angel: And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:12) It continues to be a sign also for us, men and women of the 21st century. There is no other Christmas.”

As we consider where this mystical intuition led him, we are all the beneficiaries of his effort to “comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.” (Eph.3: 18-19) Each time we set up the Nativity scene in our home, we have the possibility of reclaiming for ourselves that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Each time we place the tiny figure of the Christ child upon the rough and dusty straw at church, we are reminded as a community of the extent and cost of Christ’s journey to lead us all back to the Father. The rough hewn wood of the crib is the same as the wood of the cross; it is the tree of our life.

Francis´ highest intention, his chief desire, his uppermost purpose was to observe the holy Gospel in all things and through all things and, with perfect vigilance, with all zeal, with all the longing of his mind and all the fervor of his heart, “to follow the teaching and the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He would recall Christ’s word through persistent meditation and bring to mind his deeds through the most penetrating consideration. The humility of the incarnation and the charity of the passion occupied his memory particularly, to the extent that he wanted to think of hardly anything else. (Celano, Francis)

+ + +

A feeding frame for animals is the most improbable stage for one of the greatest acts in the story of salvation. On this rugged structure, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Even more incredible in the estimation of Saint Francis, however, was the sheer gratuitousness of this event. His amazement, in fact, has been echoed through Franciscan theological tradition: “As a paradigm for our humanity, Jesus reveals for us God’s love and the goodness of creation. In (John Duns) Scotus’ system, incarnation is inevitable because of God’s love, not necessarily because of sin. The Franciscan school of theology would keep this racially incarnational and sacramental vision.” (The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality)

Indeed, the rich heritage of Franciscan theological thought rests on often surprising yet strong pillars, among which is its focus on the humility of the Incarnation. I draw your attention to these remarks: “A contemporary resurrection Christology stresses the role of the Resurrection, Ascension (exaltation) and sending of the Holy Spirit. From the standpoint of the Resurrection-Ascension, we are able to understand the very meaning of his life, message and death, and we also see the value of the church as it has lived our and is living out the Jesus-event.

“For Francis, it is not the Resurrection of Jesus that offers such a lens. In many ways it is not the divinity of Jesus alone which centres his vision. It is certainly not the Jesus who alone offered satisfaction for all our sins (the atonement theory regarding Christ’s death) that centres his focus. Nor can one say that it is simply the incarnation which centres his view. It is the incarnation, but, more precisely, it is the humility of the incarnation which summarizes the life, conversion, teaching and example of Francis.” (Kenan Osborne, The Franciscan Intellectual Tradition)

This is not to say that Saint Francis dismissed the more glorious events. In fact, as his Little Office of the Passion makes evident, the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus were inseparable, interwoven realities. But it remains a fact that the human channel of God’s loving action in the world elicited his greatest responses and inspired his most far-reaching decisions about how to appropriate and live the Gospel.

In the preface to an anthology of writings by a leading figure of Franciscan theology, Saint Bonaventure, in referring to his landmark scholastic work, Ignatius Brady writes, “The Soul’s Journey into God expresses the Franciscan awareness of the presence of God in creation; the physical universe and the soul are seen as mirrors reflecting God and as rungs in a ladder leading to God. Bonaventure expresses here, in his own way, Francis joy in the sacrality and sacramentality of creation and, in so doing, captures an essential element in Franciscan spirituality. Basic though this element is, it would not be complete without its flowering in devotion to the humanity of Christ. There is a natural link between the Franciscan attitude toward material creation, as sacramentally manifesting God, and the Franciscan devotion to the incarnation as the fullness of this manifestation.”

The manger was prepared, the hay had been brought, the ox and ass were led in. There simplicity was honored, poverty was exalted, humility was commended, and Greccio was made, as it were, a new Bethlehem. (Celano, Francis)

+ + +

What does it mean to contemplate the improvised crib that greeted Jesus’ life among us? What feeling do we get from running our fingers along the ridges of the rough-hewn manger that held the Saviour of the world? What is revealed by our meditation of so great a mystery as a king being laid on the straw of suffering rather than silk of privilege?

Many thoughts rush to mind. Among them is the immensity of the Father’s love that he would set in motion a series of events that make our own experience of suffering bearable and even meaningful. It is matched only by the immensity of the Son’s love who would allow his body to be placed upon the wood of the cross and endure the most excruciating and humiliating of deaths in order that his solidarity with humanity may be complete. These two descents, first onto the crib and then onto the cross, made possible the rise of hope in the durability of love, of joy in God’s presence and of peace that transcends all of the trials that life may throw at us.

His gesture to go beyond pity and even transcend compassion into the fullest form of solidarity imaginable may be the most awesome evidence of Jesus’ divinity available to us. It is the most perfect revelation of God’s unconditional love and determination to free us from fear in order that we may find genuine happiness even in our human condition.

The night was lighted up like the day, and it delighted men and beasts. The people came and were filled with new joy over the new mystery. The woods rang with the voices of the crowd and the rocks made answer to their jubilation. The brothers sang, paying their debt of praise to the Lord, and the whole night resounded with their rejoicing. The saint of God stood before the manger, uttering sighs, overcome with love, and filled with a wonderful happiness.
(Thomas of Celano, Life of St. Francis)

+ + +

May the holy Advent season be a time of prayer, mediation and contemplation focused on the awesome mystery of God truly being among us. May Christmas be for you a time of true peace and enduring joy. May you be richly blessed throughout the coming year.



crib and cross Franciscan Ministries