Following the example of St Francis, each friar (and indeed everyone) is called to a life of conversion. As such, it is easy to relate Franciscan spirituality with a spirituality of the Cross, of Christ’s passion. But is not Franciscan spirituality fundamentally anchored on the Resurrection? After all, what is conversion but a movement away from sin and self-love towards a renewal of the mind, and a resurrected way of life made possible by Christ risen again?
Conversion is rooted in the hope of Easter. So we are called to imitate Jesus not only in his poverty, passion and suffering, but also in his glory as we claim the victory of Christ over our old selves and live as children of light. The Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus all tell one story: the Paschal mystery. This link between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is aptly demonstrated by the stigmata. It is interesting that the wounds of Christ that keenly remind us of his gruesome death are what convinced St Thomas of the Risen Lord. Likewise, it is true that many times, it is our own brokenness that awakens us to our acute need for God.
Indeed, the movement from death to life is a pattern of reality for all who believe in Jesus. The San Damiano cross captures this truth beautifully. On it, the Risen Christ, still wounded by our sins, stands and welcomes us with open eyes and open arms. It illustrates the death and life, helplessness and power of God simultaneously. Even poverty, a much-cherished virtue in Franciscanism, is a remembrance of the Resurrection.
We recall that as Jesus rose from the dead, the linen cloth was left behind. This is a powerful symbol of a Christian’s utter dependence on God – for in Him, we have all we need. In the face of God who has overcome all, even death, to save us, poverty appears to be the only valid response. We know that if we abandon our whole selves to God, and persevere in imitating Jesus, we will surely be raised up like Him as well.
St Francis knew what it meant to persevere. At his death, his biographer Thomas of Celano noted something wondrous and had this to say: “And they beheld his flesh which had been dark before glittering with exceeding whiteness and promising by its beauty the reward of a blessed resurrection. Finally, they saw his face like the face of an angel, as if he were alive and not dead.” (The First Life of St Francis, Chapter 9, no 112).
Easter has come. We can begin anew. May the path of St Francis lead us to the joy of encountering our Risen Saviour! Alleluia!
The journey towards Easter at St Ann’s Mission in Sarawak is part of the ongoing Franciscan celebration of simplicity, goodness and beauty. The liturgies enhance the experience of prayer, contemplation and community in this large parish where the Franciscan community, comprising two priests, serves the pastoral and sacramental needs of about 25,000 parishioners in 40 villages spread over a land area approximately the size of Singapore.
The faithful are mostly indigenous Dayan people of Bidayuh heritage. Masses are celebrated in English, Bahasa Malaysia and Mandarin in the main mission centre, and in Bidayuh in the village chapels that serve the sacramental needs of the rural communities.
Over the course of Lent, the mission centre and village chapels were active centres for communal gathering and prayer. Prayer leaders in the individual villages led the Stations of the Cross every Friday, and monthly Praise and Worship sessions were adapted for the Lenten season. The Sacrament of Reconciliation was celebrated over two consecutive weeks with the help of visiting priests.
For the Easter Triduum, the parish friars and a visiting friar-priest will celebrate masses and services from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday in five locations.
In Singapore, the Church of St Mary of the Angels celebrates Lent this year with the theme “From Cosmic Dust to an Easter Garden”. Parishioners have been invited to make amends for their sins against God’s creation and to take time to pray for our common home and for those who depend on it. As a community of faith, we treasure God’s creation and seek to protect those who share it, our vulnerable brothers and sisters above all.
We recognise that our misuse of creation has led to tragic and unjust suffering for people around the globe. Hence, this Lent, parishioners have been invited to turn away from harming the good gift of creation, and take actions that will bring us into a new relationship with God, our world and one another. The parish team has prepared a booklet of weekly reflections focusing on creation, and a Lenten Kit for use in Lenten preparations. Details can be found at stmary.sg/lent and the parish YouTube channel.
St Francis of Assisi is well known for his love of poverty, but he was not born into poverty. In fact, he was born into wealth and privilege, and dreamt of glory on the battlefield. He thought these would bring him happiness. It was not until he encountered the leper that he realised that true happiness is found in God alone.
This was the key event that led Francis to his conversion. “And the Lord himself led me among them (the lepers) and I showed mercy towards them. And withdrawing from them, that which once seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body,” said Francis.
Wanting to imitate Christ, he embraced radical poverty. For Francis, that meant not only renouncing material goods but also putting on the attitude of Christ. It meant striving to be perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect, serving with humility and charity, being poor among the poor.
As the lepers helped him to overcome his revulsion, he began to show compassion to all, treating everyone as if they were Christ himself. Francis and the early brothers devoted themselves to the care of lepers, who were rejected by society, and to bringing God’s love, peace, joy and hope to those were desolate.
The brothers began to look beyond themselves and began to seek to comfort those who were suffering physically and emotionally. The more Francis immersed himself in serving others, in putting his faith in action, the more he was drawn to empty himself, to going the extra mile for the sake of others. He found his ability to love magnified every day, and this led him to strive to perpetually seek God’s will in his life. Francis’ quest led him to the knowledge that our God is the “Most High Glorious God”, a God who is love, mercy and compassion.
“What was bitter was changed into sweetness” for him for he was able to discover the dignity and beauty of each person, rich or poor, healthy or sick, strong or weak, young or old.
In steadfastly following the will of God in his life, Francis began to experience life to the full. He felt a strong sense of God in his daily life, and the awareness of God’s presence within him gave him a new way of looking at the world. He began to see God’s presence in others. “What was bitter was changed into sweetness” for him for he was able to discover the dignity and beauty of each person, rich or poor, healthy or sick, strong or weak, young or old. They were all God’s beloved children. He found that all of creation manifested the beauty of God. It was God’s gift to him. As Francis put it, “the Lord himself led me among them”.
Francis knew that God’s gifts were to be shared with others. As he experienced life to the full, he wanted others to also have meaningful lives. For he knew that it is in mutual sharing, in washing each other’s feet that God’s reign is manifested among us.
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.