At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11:25-30)
The Church universal has always recognized exceptional and sometimes larger than life people whose faith – and how they chose to live it – set an example for us to imitate at some level….and so today we turn our attention to St. Francis – one of the better known saints through whom the light of Christ shone brightly during his life, a light that continues to illuminate our time and space as well. He left what can only be described as an impressive spiritual legacy that we’re recognizing and celebrating today. So – here’s a little bit about him.
St. Francis was born in the year 1181, between 8 and 900 years ago, in Assisi, a small town almost in the dead centre of Italy. He was born into a wealthy aristocratic family, but when he was still quite a young man, he heard what he believed to be the voice of Jesus telling him to lead a very different kind of life… to live, in fact, like Jesus did, embracing poverty and wandering through the countryside interacting with those he met. Francis found the voice and its message to be compelling, and he immediately gave away everything he owned (including his clothing, if we believe the stories) and started travelling about the countryside. He preached repentance and forgiveness, gave special attention to the poor and the sick, and became known for his kindness and gentleness. It was probably inevitable that he would develop a following, and one of the enduring things he did was to found a monastic order for men, who are known, of course, as Franciscans; and this in turn inspired a woman named Clare of Assisi to petition the pope for permission to found a similar order for women, initially called the Poor Ladies, but are now known as the Poor Clares after their founder. Both orders continue to the present day, adhering as closely as possible to the example Francis set, embracing the lifestyle of voluntary poverty and service to humankind.
One of the things that Francis is best remembered for, though, was his love of animals and of all of Creation….he is, in fact, the patron saint of animals and the environment. It was said that animals and birds felt very comfortable around him, and so paintings or pictures of St. Francis often show him either holding a bird, or with a bird sitting on his shoulder, and perhaps with a collection of animals at his feet. He so delighted in God’s handiwork as it was revealed in nature, that he thought of the animals and birds, the sun and the moon, the earth and the sky as his brothers and sisters. So in St. Francis we see a vision of Creation that’s worth holding onto…. because he believed that all of creation is one big integrated family, and that we can and should co-exist with animal life and with nature as a whole, in a relationship of trust and mutual respect…. that we can, and should, care for each other.
Now interestingly, we read from Matthew’s gospel this morning what is, arguably, one of the best known and best loved passages of scripture – that marvellous invitation and assurance of Jesus: “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Those of us who were raised on the Book of Common Prayer recognize that verse as part of the “comfortable words” that form the transition from confession and absolution to the prayer of consecration in the service of Holy Communion; that wonderful opportunity we were given to know that whatever our burden or preoccupation of the day, we could lay it at the foot of the cross and experience the unparalleled freedom of knowing that we were, and are, loved, cared for, and ultimately safe. And even as a young child it always felt to me in that moment, that Jesus was speaking to me personally, inviting me to breathe and regain my sense of balance.
And so when I saw that this was the gospel text for today, I thought, how peculiar it is that this reading, which seems to turn us inward to an awareness of our own personal issues, should be chosen for St. Francis’ Day – because on the surface, I really couldn’t fathom the connection. We’re here after all, to celebrate Creation as Francis envisioned it – not to focus on our own personal preoccupations; here to understand ourselves and the human species as part of creation and not outside of it or above it; here to focus less on our own concerns and more on the bigger picture. But as I thought about it, I realized that maybe it’s time to let that piece of scripture speak to us in a slightly different way, in honour of St. Francis and what he stood for.
When we talk about Creation these days, it’s with the tragic awareness that humankind has disrupted its delicate balances; we’re often told that we’re teetering on the brink of environmental disaster, and indeed, many would suggest, that perhaps we’re already there. We get the sense that there’s some pretty desperate backpedalling being done to try to undo some of the damage we’re responsible for, to give the fragile earth some space, and opportunity for healing: time to re-create itself. And that’s where the gospel started to make some sense to me – because perhaps it’s inviting us to hear it, not from our own introspective point of view, but from the point of view of Mother Earth. Perhaps it’s time for us to issue to the earth the same invitation that Jesus issued to us – specifically for us to recognize that the earth is weary and heavy laden, and we must offer it rest. Our brothers and sisters, the plants and animals, earth, sea and sky, depend on us for their life and health. So today, may the light that shone through Francis illuminate our prayer: Lord, make us channels of healing and wholeness and peace for the earth you created, the world you love. Amen.
The Blessing of St. Clare:
Live without fear: your Creator has made you holy, has always protected you, and loves you as a mother. Go in peace to follow the good road, and may the blessing of God be with you always.
The Venerable Nancy Adams, Interim Priest in Charge