January 2011 – Letters from Assisi

Focus on the spirituality of St. Francis

January 2011

Dear Friend of Saint Francis:

In January, many nations celebrate the visit of three magi from the East to the place of Jesus’ birth, based on an account by the evangelist Saint Matthew. Arguably, we should also recall the visit of other characters in the birth narrative, the visit of the lowly shepherds, as told by Saint Luke. Both were epiphanies–concrete encounters between divinity and humanity.

In those days, according to writer Richard Rohr, shepherds were believed to be “people outside the system and outside the law,” boorish and dirty sinners in the eyes of the Jews. Given his purpose, “to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,” it is fitting that Jesus would reveal himself first to them.

Luke’s includes the fullest infancy narrative of all four Gospels. It reveals Luke’s focus on individuals, and his special interest in social outcasts, poverty and wealth: “Those who are poor and humble are often the objects of the Saviour’s mercy…At Nazareth, Jesus proclaims good tidings to the poor…the first beatitude is addressed to the poor, without qualification ‘in spirit’ as found in Matthew, although the same sense may be intended.” (Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction)

This prophetic and salvific message about good news for the poor, originated by Isaiah, is amplified by the chorus that accompany the angel: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours.” (Luke 2: 14) True peace has come in the person of Jesus (cf. John 14: 27), defying all expectations about what force would be needed to defeat the Roman occupation.

The shepherds ran to see what the angel had announced: “So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.” (Luke 2: 16) Their eagerness echoes that of Mary: “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” (Luke 1: 39) The coming of the Lord was perceived spontaneously by chosen ones as good news, the long awaited news of salvation.

One can only imagine the amazement in the eyes of the shepherds, and they saw peace and joy that were diminished neither by the filth and destitution of the setting, nor by the cold and darkness of the night, nor by the repeated rejection of the surrounding community. Their hearts reposed on the gift that healed their deepest longing.

No doubt propelled by their joyful hope, “the shepherds returned, glorying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” by the angel. (Luke 2: 20) An experience this profound would mark the depth of their being and transform their lives forever. The intensity of God’s love expressed in the Incarnation would seize their hearts and focus their minds on spreading the good news.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away. Luke 1: 52-53

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Greccio is at once mundane and mystical. My first sight of it was on a chilled and overcast October weekday. The streets and square were vacant, which added to the mystery of this depopulating hill town, centuries old. Salmon and beige buildings, two to four stories high, stood as ghostly figures against mountains that rose from this plateau overhanging the Velino River that winds through the broad Rieti valley. Only the oak forest atop Mount Sabini basked in sunlight.

Climbing a set of stairs that ran beside the church’s belfry that is the only remnant of an 11th century castle, I looked around for a sight of the Franciscan convent that we had travelled to see. Nothing. Eventually, someone appeared and gave instructions that led a short distance on the outskirts.

The shrine of the Crib blends well with the white stone of this sub-range of the Apennines, topped by trees to camouflage it further from unsuspecting tourists. Upon entering the modest, pale yellow building that greets pilgrims, I encountered the Chapel of the Crèche, built the year Saint Francis was canonized, 1228, two years after his death. The cave harbours a 14th century fresco titled The Nursing Lady, portraying the Nativity in Bethlehem, and Christmas in Greccio. It is a silent morning. All is calm. All is bright.

This place, intensely peaceful, turns out to be living museum, intact as though the 13th century friars had only just retired to their cells for private prayer. Through narrow corridors, I arrive at the living quarters of Saint Francis, the refectory with the remains of a small basin, the old dormitory. On the second floor runs an ancient wooden corridor along which are tiny cells, no doubt occupied by Saint Bonaventure and Saint Bernardine, heroes of my fascination with the Franciscan tradition.

From there runs a choir room with its ancient lectern and an antiphonal written on parchment. I am dazed. Softly, I walk into the first church dedicated to Saint Francis. Its simplicity is breathtaking: dark stalls, a 14th century retable, and a fresco that recalls the forgiveness of sins: “Now a temple of the Lord has been consecrated on the site of the crèche and above the crèche itself an altar built and a church dedicated in honour of the most blessed Francis” (Celano, Life of Saint Francis)

There simplicity was honoured, poverty was exalted, humility was commended, and Greccio was made, as it were, a new Bethlehem. Thomas of Celano, Life of Saint Francis

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Greccio was a special place for Saint Francis; it was indeed a New Bethlehem. According to Keith Warner, “He loved poverty not for its own sake, but rather because in it he saw Jesus, and in Jesus, the incomparable generosity of God’s love…his devotion to the incarnation of Christ was the foundation upon which Franciscan spirituality rests, and it explains the significance of his devotion to Jesus in the crib at Greccio and his stigmatization on Mount La Verna.”

Epiphanies, which the Webster dictionary defines as “a manifestation, especially of a divine being; a sudden perception of the essential nature or meaning of something,” are vital forms of divine self-revelation and communication. They exist for a reason. Arguably, without them, faith would have no foundation.

Such epiphanies occur at the end of a journey, which begins with an insight that Scripture portrays often as the appearance by an angel. In the case of the shepherds, we read that “an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’”

The Webster definition is interesting. It suggests both that the Incarnation is an act of self-revelation, a manifestation. It also alludes to Christ as the essence or meaning of God, which of course is what is also meant by the word Logos that is translated into English as “Word.” The Word became flesh and lived among us. (John 1:14)

For Saint Francis, epiphanies occur throughout his journey of religious conversion—during his imprisonment and subsequent illness, in his awakening from knightly fantasies, among lepers, at the run-down church of San Damiano, to name a few. Greccio is the culmination. (La Verna would be the crowning.) We see not only in his Canticle of Creation but across the litany of intuitions and insights that he favours authentic experience as the path to God. His use of bodily senses is remarkable. The Incarnation is a celebration of God’s accessibility to humanity.

Warner continues, “Devotion to the Incarnation of Christ in the Franciscan tradition is expressed in a radical affirmation of the goodness of the human person, and we believe that to be human is good because Jesus was a human being. The Incarnation of Christ was so important that it fundamentally changed the nature of the relationship between God and humanity.”

Manifestly, Saint Francis deepened Christianity’s celebration of Christmas. His genius was to add to the mundane (popular awareness of a historical event; common materials assembled with theatrical flair) a vision of divine love. With the former, he creates excitement with broad popular appeal. With the latter, he draws us all into a world beyond human reason, with an emotional response to divine reality that is hidden within the physical evidence present: “The saint of God stood before the manger, uttering sighs, overcome with love, and filled with a wonderful happiness.” (Celano)

To understand the connection between Francis’ understanding of poverty and the Incarnation…he encompasses humility, simplicity, vulnerability, non-possession, and most importantly, self-emptying generosity. Keith Warner, Franciscan Spirituality

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May epiphanies bless you along your spiritual journey. May God make his face to shine upon you, and give you his joy and hope.


richard Boileau

crib and cross Franciscan Ministries