The seasons of Advent and Christmas offer us the possibility of doing things in other ways. The Pope speaks of the Church as a “field hospital”. God, he says, is not found in “neat, orderly places and things, distant from reality”. As we set out our Advent candles, cribs, Christmas trees and lights, do we remember that God walks by our side especially now with the world in turmoil? The Incarnation has given us the message that God has moved into our neighbourhoods. How does this theological reality impact our daily spiritual lives?
For many of us, our neighbourhoods can sometimes be depressing places where we live with anxiety, shame, guilt, fear and so many other feelings and behaviours that prevent us from knowing that we are indeed loved. God has moved into such neighbourhoods.
During Advent, the Isaiah readings during Mass invite us to embrace a God who has come to console us and free us from the prisons of our sins. John the Baptist encourages us to make straight paths in our lives so that we can see God as God really is, and not the way we want God to be.
God is with us in good times and in bad. Couples professing their vows on their wedding day promise to be there for each other in good times and in bad. God, in the Incarnation of Jesus, has made the same promise to us. In Jesus, the new covenant, this promise is sealed forever.
But how do we know this for sure, especially during those times we cannot sense the presence of God? John Henry Newman, the 19th Century English theologian, scholar and poet, said his search for God did not end with his studies or his priesthood. He is quoted as saying “I sought to hear the voice of God and climbed the topmost steeple, but God declared: Go down again – I dwell among the people.”
In the Gospels, we find Jesus largely among ordinary people, the outcasts, the disease-ridden and those society had labelled unworthy or sinful. The Gospel of Matthew (25:31-46) clearly describes Jesus as not just among people, but as the least among them. The Gospel of John says: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).
We rush to register for Mass, but a genuine desire to receive the Lord in the celebration of the Eucharist must be matched with an equally real longing to experience the same Lord in the lives of others – all others and not only like-mind people.
The language the psalmist uses describes the general nature of life for many people: “waters up to my neck”, “sinking into depths where there is no foothold”, “my eyes fail”, “shame covers my face”, etc. But there is steadfast faith that God will deliver. The psalmist prays “in your great love, O God, answer me with your sure salvation” (69:13).
Salvation. This is what we are assured of. God did not promise a life without struggles and challenges. Our lives can be messy. We struggle, we suffer, but as we do, we hold on to the sure and certain hope that the ultimate life that comes with God is ours, and will never be taken away from us.
Jesus showed that the way to a full life in the resurrection is to carry the cross of humanity’s burden, with our eyes fixed on God’s kingdom, and walk the path towards Easter. We tell ourselves that “this is only Friday, Sunday will come”. That is the blessed assurance given to us in the suffering of Christ. For as it says in Hebrews, “it is not as if we have a high priest who is incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us …” We believe in a God who knows what it means to be human.
So how can we express our faith anew in this season when we celebrate the Incarnation? At the opening Mass for the Synod on 10 October, Pope Francis encouraged the Church to become “experts in the art of encounter”. He invited us to walk together on the same road by encountering our God in one another. On this road we listen to others and to one another with the heart, with no judgment. When we encounter and listen to others sincerely, we then need to discern what changes we are invited to embrace in order to make room in our hearts for God.
May this Christmas truly become the feast of the Incarnation for each of us.
The story of St Francis and the Christmas Crib at Greccio shows what was really important to Francis – the poverty of Jesus and his mother, and the discomfort felt by the little baby. For Francis, the external poverty of Christ’s birth at Bethlehem was representative of the radical poverty of the Incarnation. Celano also placed an emphasis on the virtues of simplicity, poverty, and humility, leading us to understand that the poverty of Francis is in imitation of the poverty of Jesus.
During the seasons of Advent and Christmas, we invite you to spend some time in quiet prayer before the Christmas Crib, and offer some questions for your reflection.
1. What is the place of poverty – simplicity – humility in my life?
2. Celano wrote of how Francis wished “to enact the memory of that babe who was born in Bethlehem”. Where do we enact “memory” in our lives? Are we able to re-read the events of our lives and perceive the Lord’s presence in them?
3. What truly is the place of the Eucharist in my life, in the course of my day?
4. What is the place of the senses in my relationship with God, and in how my faith is expressed?
5. How open am I to the new and to what challenges me? How can I grasp the beauty of poverty?
Francis spoke of making room for creativity, which opens us up to the new. We are invited to give space to feelings, to joy, to songs, to festive celebration. We are also called to enjoy the beauty of poverty, which in the story of Greccio is characterised by a dignity and beauty that become a source of joy.
Join Friar Gerald Tan, OFM as he moderates the ZOOM session conducted by The Franciscan Young Adults with Friar Dan Horan, OFM as the main guest speaker.
Friar Dan Horan, OFM is a new generation Franciscan theologian who has written and spoken on Franciscan theology, philosophy and spirituality. He is the author of Dating God: Live and Love in the way of St Francis where he sought to present the foundations of a relationship with God from the unique lens of a millennial friar.
On 29 Nov, 1979, Pope John Paul II in his Bull Inter Sanctos, proclaimed St Francis of Assisi the patron of ecology. St Francis is best characterised as an ontological poet and a nature mystic who discovered the inter-relatedness of all beings through a spiritual journey of conversion, penance and praise. It is important for us to see the necessity of both the internal spiritual encounter and the external ecological effect of his spiritual journey for they point the way to our own conversion.
What was it that enabled Francis to be kin with all of creation? What gave him the strength to set aside the human tendency towards subordination or domination? What enabled him to be utterly available and completely focused on the needs of others? As St Bonaventure stated, “Francis was able to return to a state of primaeval innocence – a place full of mutuality and relationship with God and all creatures.” Choosing to live the Gospel, Francis came to know God and to know his truest self. Franciscan theologian Regis J Armstrong holds that Francis used three primary pathways to come to know God ever more intimately – Penance, Poverty and Prayer.
Penance. The Testament of Francis bears witness to his call from God to do penance, that is to embrace a life of loving relationship with God, to see the world as an expression of the Creator’s goodness and to live in hope of the fulfilment of the reign of God. His life of penance was a journey of faith which culminated in conversion. He experienced a new way of knowing and a greater sensitivity to the voice of God within himself and all of creation. More importantly, this conversion led to action. In his Testament, Francis described his embrace of a leper – a point of true conversion in his life. At that moment, he became conscious of God’s unconditional generosity and he responded with a heart sensitive to misery. St Bonaventure talked about other encounters with beggars and he called Francis’ responses acts of pietas – acts of devotion to God and of compassion. Penance is a process of engaging in a spirit-filled life which draws one to the very heart of God. Would we be in an ecological crisis today if you and I lived as Francis lived; with a heart sensitive to misery?
Poverty. Once one has caught a glimpse of the infinitely loving and gracious God, one is confronted with one’s human limitations of sin, arrogant self-centredness, an unhealthy lack of self-confidence and the deceptions of one’s own biases and prejudices. In his 2nd Admonition, Francis taught that the fall of humanity into sin had everything to do with human desire to grasp things and use them in an arrogant and selfish manner. Anotheraspect of poverty is material poverty. For Francis, this was an outward sign of an inward reality — spiritual poverty — and more importantly, an outward sign that led to a deeper reality. As we embrace material poverty more seriously, God alone becomes our treasure which we can both treasure and give away. What if our world leaders, corporate leaders and others had Francis’ sense of material poverty? How different might life be?
Prayer. Francis reminds us that we are empowered to see, know and believe by the same Holy Spirit which animates the very life of God’s self. Indeed, the Holy Spirit enables Christians to recognise the bread and wine of the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and it enables us to perceive ordinary earthly things as reflections of God. St Bonaventure used a Latin verb “contueri” to describe the capacity to grasp and know things beyond what can be seen. When one knows something through the Holy Spirit, one contuits the particulars such as the size, shape, colour, smell of a rose for example, and also the eternal reasons in those particulars – the love of God the Creator, the beauty of the rose. The more deeply Francis lived in the life of the Spirit, the more he grew in his capacity as a contuitive, delighting in the world as the revelation of the divine. Prayer then must be the starting point of our faith life and also its culmination. For the person who views the world with the eyes of the Spirit, every moment becomes an occasion of contemplation.
In the earlier Rule, chapter 23, Francis wrote, “Therefore, let us desire nothing else, let us want nothing else, let nothing else please us and cause us delight except our Creator, Redeemer and Saviour, the only true God, Who is the fullness of good, all good, every good, the true and supreme good, Who alone is good, merciful, gentle, delightful, and sweet, Who alone is holy, just, true, holy, and upright, Who alone is kind, innocent, clean, from Whom, through Whom and in Whom is all pardon, all grace, all glory of all penitents and just ones, of all the blessed rejoicing together in heaven.” What if our response to God’s love was as total and spirited as Francis’? Would we destroy the fertile soil or pollute the ground waters of our farmland for the sake of money?
Through the threefold pattern – penance, poverty and prayer – we too can be transformed and converted, and then repeatedly recycled through the process to move ever more deeply into the heart of God. Thomas of Celano in the first generation of Franciscan theologians understood St Francis and St Clare to be the embodiment of this eco-theology. As God in Christ looks lovingly upon humanity and its vulnerability,so too must we reach out to the lepers of our day – the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten, the polluted environment, the threatened species. We must value the entire cosmos, and cherish its every member and its particularity for its own sake as they each reveal something of God who is good, totally good.
The Canticle of the Creatures is a hymn of praise that recapitulates Francis’ journey to God in and through the beautiful things of creation… But the Canticle also represents a lifetime of conversion, as Francis strove to be a brother to all things and to praise God in the cloister of the universe despite his sufferings, feelings of abandonment and darkness. In the Canticle, composed one year before he died and while he was laying ill in a small dark hut near San Damiano, Francis sang of the human family (brother-sister- mother) as the model for all relationships. The Canticle of the Creatures is the capstone of his theological vision.
The Canticle reminds us that we humans are as dependent on the elements of creation as they are dependent on us. With his marvellous respect for creatures of all kinds, for sun, moon, stars, water, wind, fire and earth, Francis came to see that all creation gives praise to God. Brother Sun and Sister Moon praise God just by being sun and moon. …
As the final song of his life, the Canticle reveals to us Francis’ deep reflection on the mystery of the Incarnation. For Francis it is the Incarnation that gives insight into the goodness of the created world as the sacrament of God. Creation and Incarnation are intimately united in such a way that we cannot truly grasp our relationship to creation apart from understanding our relationship to Jesus Christ.
Francis’ relationship to Christ did not follow a narrow path but grew to the widest possible horizon. The deeper he grew in relationship with Christ, the more he found himself intimately related to the things of creation as brother. We might say that his relationship with Christ changed his internal focus. He developed a deeper consciousness of “relatedness” and came to realise he was related to all things no matter how small, because everything shared in the primordial goodness of God, the source of his own life. Francis discovered that he was part of the cosmic family of creation.
An excerpt from Ilia Delio, OSF, “A Franciscan View of Creation: Learning to Live in a Sacramental World.” Volume 2 of The Franciscan Heritage Series. Published by The Franciscan Institute, St Bonaventure University, St Bonaventure, NY, 2003.