Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Feast of St. Francis: A Homily Reflection

(Matthew 11: 25-30)
“At that time Jesus said in reply, ‘I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.

“’All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.

"’Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.’"

Today, we honor St. Francis of Assisi. A great saint in the Catholic Church. A great saint in the Christian tradition, revered by members of many denominations. A truly holy man, respected by people of good will who may belong to no particular spiritual tradition at all. Today, after eight hundred years, the figure of Francis continues to attract, edify, and inspire people. But why?

For us as Christians in the Catholic tradition, the saints are not especially significant in and of themselves. We respect, revere, and admire them primarily because we recognize that they were close to God, close to Jesus Christ. And that transforming ‘closeness’, which is so evident becomes tremendously appealing to us.

Here at our parish (Mission San Luis Rey), we’ve been spending a wonderful weekend together to commemorate and celebrate the feast of St. Francis. Last night in the Old Mission Church, we gathered with our Franciscan sisters, parishioners, and members of the Secular Franciscans (as well as our Benedictine brothers from nearby Prince of Peace Abbey) to celebrate the Transitus of St. Francis—the passing of St. Francis from this life into eternal life.

And yesterday, here at the parish, we celebrated St. Francis Day, a “funraiser” for our parish school involving a number of different groups in our parish family. Part of that wonderful celebration was the blessing of animals. Father Luis and I must have blessed more than a hundred pets during the day. People brought lots and lots of dogs, but, understandably, not so many cats at the same time. We also blessed a rabbit, three chickens and a rooster, and a lizard (gecko). It was great, but I confess last year’s blessing was a bit more exotic: we had a horse, a cricket, and a tarantula. Actually, I was hoping for more of the same this time around. I wanted to bless a centipede so I could say, “If I’ve blessed you once, I’ve blessed you a hundred times,” but it didn’t work out.

Seriously, as we were blessing all these wonderful pets, I began to realize—wait a minute, we are not just blessing them; we are acknowledging that these wonderful creatures (“criaturas” in Spanish) are a blessing to us. They bless us with their presence, and they can bring us closer to God, as well. They teach us so much about friendship, loyalty, and affection. No wonder then, that St. Francis should be the patron saint of animals. He understood that our Brother and Sister pets, as God’s own criaturas, contain a spark of Creation, part of the life of the Spirit itself given to them in their lives. And in their closeness to God.

To return to Francis. Everything Francis learned about God, he learned from Jesus. In particular, he learned to get close to God in and through the example of the intimacy of Jesus with the Father. Today’s Gospel from Matthew (Chapter 11) is illustrative. Jesus’ disciples have just completed a mission to the towns of Galilee, their home turf. They have done as Jesus instructed: they have gone to teach, preach, and heal. They return, no doubt feeling dejected and despondent; their message has been rejected. Jesus starts to call out—quite literally—the towns of Galilee for their unresponsiveness. But suddenly, what might have been only a curse turns instead into a remarkable prayer, and even blessing.

We are given a privileged opportunity here to listen to Jesus’ prayer—in language that would appear to come straight out of the gospel of John rather than any of the synoptics. Jesus calls God “Father”, or better yet, “Abba,” or “Daddy”/ “Papa.” He proceeds to observe that God has chosen to reveal Himself to the “childlike,” by which He is referring to his own disciples. Notice this is “childlike” not “childish.” The best part of childlike behavior is the best part of childhood itself: openness, innocence, spontaneity, and joy.

Jesus goes on to speak to these childlike disciples—who, in a way, are proxies for ourselves. He knows full well their (and our own) struggles, pain, frustrations, doubts and fears. And He offers to help to bear the burden—to share the yoke with these “yokels” —as team of draft animals would share the plowing of a field, lightening the burden each of the other.

In this wonderful story, Jesus invites us to get close.--really close—to himself. Francis, for his part, allowed Jesus to get close to him. Again, it’s really what made him a saint. That closeness, that intimacy, transformed his life and filled it with the life and light of Christ. It didn’t turn Francis into a perfect person. Frankly, Francis’s life was pretty messy all the way through—right on up to his premature death in his early forties due, no doubt in part, to the neglect of his physical health. But what changed, deeply transformed his life spiritually was the realization that God had a hold of him and would never, ever let him go. God invites us to get close to Him, as well—to allow him to grab hold of us and to transform our lives in his Love. And along with that invitation comes his promise: that once He has hold of us God will never, ever let us go. //

Images: (top and bottom) from: Artist: Aiden Hart