A weekly Rector’s Notes article, September 17, 2018
It is really hard to live up to the legacy that St. Francis has left for us.
Francis is famously known for his love for animals and creation, and the founding of the Franciscan Order. But, perhaps less well known is the extreme level to which Francis held himself and his followers. Francis has sometimes been referred to as alter Christus, that is, another Christ, due to the level of devotion that Francis practiced in following in the footsteps of Christ.
For Francis this meant more than simply “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words” (a quote often attributed to St. Francis, even if it likely wasn’t a direct teaching of his), it instead required of the follower a complete giving up of one’s self in order to fully live into the life that Christ calls us to.
Francis believed that extreme poverty was the essential lifestyle for followers of his order because it was only through poverty, and the complete removal of one’s self from worldly possessions and constraints, that one could truly connect with the holy and live into the mission that Christ laid out for us.
This was especially evident in the practices that we celebrate today in communing with creation and in particular animals. Francis believed that nature was the mirror of God, referring to the created world in terms of “brother” and “sister,” supposedly preaching to the birds and in one story, intervening with a wolf to stop it from terrorizing a local village. This connection to the created world was fostered through his self-imposed removal from the human world around him, as he forfeited his status and privilege to follow in the footsteps of Christ.
Francis’ devotion to his beliefs is further evidenced by two unique events for which Francis is credited as the first. Francis experienced the first recorded occurrence of the Stigmata, that is spontaneous bleeding of the hands marking the wounds that Christ suffered while on the cross. Francis is also credited with creating the first nativity or creche scene, using a live donkey and ox placed around an empty manger filled with hay, from which he celebrated the Christmas mass.
When we celebrate St. Francis with the Blessing of the Animals, we are only scratching the surface of what this man meant for the development of Christianity, and the long-lasting legacy that he has left for us.