Saint Francis and the Cross
On my desk at home, I have a postcard I picked up in Assisi a few years ago. It is a photograph of a fresco of the Crucifixion, one of many in the Lower Basilica in Assisi. The Basilica was begun just a few years after Francis’ death, and just a day after Francis was canonized. The frescoes came to the basilica a hundred years later, after many pilgrims had come and gone, and after the Church in the West was thriving through the revitalization which Francis brought. It seems strange now to say it, but this revitalization was something very few could have predicted. The Church had suffered under many centuries of corruption and evangelical laziness. Francis’ call to rebuild the Church had been heeded, in more ways than one. But, this image draws our attention, not to Francis’ labors, but to his life of devotion to the Crucified Jesus.
Francis holds out his hands in adoration, second only to Mary herself, who kisses the feet of her Son. The Cross is meant to bridge a 1200 year gap in history, as if at the Cross, time and all the meaning we give it, simply fades away into eternity. This is not some kind of dismissal of history, but rather a very pointed message - that the power of the Cross still makes saints in every age, that you and I are not as remote from that power or that reality as we think we are. I have always loved what the Carthusian order has to say about this: stat crux dum volvitur orbis - the Cross is steady while the world is turning.
Even in Easter, when our attention turns to the Lord’s Resurrection and Ascension, we do well to remember that the One who is risen and ascended is also the One who is crucified. The work of the Church always begins in devotion to, and proclamation of the Cross. Francis understood this as he knelt before the San Damiano Cross and received those words, “Francis, rebuild my Church.” He knew it as he served and prayed in utter poverty. And, he knew it in the ecstasy of being joined to the Lord in a new way, unseen before in history, as he received the stigmata. What really counts for the Saints is not our work, not our ambitions, not even our intellects, but a life of prayer, a life of devotion to Jesus.
Beloved, in this time before we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension next week, remember that we human beings were made to live a life of prayer and worship. This is the very thing that it means to be made in the image of God. So often, we let our labors and preoccupations get in the way. We like to believe that we are more important than we are. This is a wonderful time to contemplate the Cross, and to pray for the grace to truly love and adore the Lord Jesus.
For Francis, this does not mean the end of our work, or the end of the call to fulfill the Lord’s commands. Quite the opposite! For Francis, to be a person devoted in prayer and contemplation of the Cross means to have one’s whole life set right, to understand things rightly, to truly know. Francis left us his Prayer Before the Cross, one which I want to share with you today:
“Most high, glorious God,
enlighten the darkness of my heart;
Give me right faith, sure hope, and perfect charity.
Fill me with understanding and knowledge,
that I may fulfill your command.”
As we continue to open our doors for public worship, I want to give an update. This has been a slow process, and undertaken in observance of what we believe to be the best possible practices. For now, it can be said that there is plenty of room left for those who would like to participate in these liturgies to do so and to do so safely. I continue to be impressed by how Christ Church people have responded to these strange times.