Creator God, we thank you for this life and the beauty that surrounds us. As we enter into this holy season of preparation, may we listen for your call to each of us. And may we become more keenly aware of your loving presence in this world. Amen.
Today we begin the season of Advent and our journey towards Christmas. These four weeks are set aside in our liturgical calendar as a season of spiritual preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. And, in this observance of Advent, we are invited to take some time out from the hustle and bustle and commercialism of the holiday season that is so prevalent in our culture and find our spiritual center.
So, over these four weeks, I hope and pray that you find in this place a safe space to relax and pray; some beauty, joy and inspiration; and a reminder of the spiritual focus of this season. After all, Christmas is nothing less than the celebration of the good news that God’s Spirit came to live with us, in the flesh, in the person of Jesus; a man who entered this world just as we all do as a tiny baby. But this doesn’t mean we’re just marking a historical event. Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation. It’s about God dwelling in this world. And at the heart of this idea of incarnation is the ongoing good news that God is with us now and that God intimately understands our human experience.
And so, this season of Advent also invites us into a spirit of anticipation and making space for new experiences of God in our world. We begin by lighting a candle of hope that reminds us to keep watch and stay hopeful for new ways in which God’s Spirit might be breaking into our lives here and now. As Paul wrote to the early church in Rome, “it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” Wake up, he says, for salvation is near; God is near. So, says Paul, lay aside the distractions and the behaviors that don’t serve us or our neighbors well. And, instead, focus on Jesus and focus on living as he taught us to live.
So today, I want to take a look at the life of one man who had his own wake-up call, a man who discovered hope when things seemed hopeless, and how this changed his life and helped develop a new and revitalizing spiritual tradition within Christianity. That man was Francesco di Bernardone, born in Assisi, Italy in 1182, the man we have now come to know as St. Francis.
Francis was the son of a cloth merchant. Though not a powerful aristocrat, his father Pietro had a good business and did well for his family. Francis became an apprentice to his father as a teenager and was said to have been both bright and charismatic, which made him a good salesman. In his spare time, not unlike many teenagers, Francis paraded and partied his way through Assisi with his friends (most of whom were of the wealthier class). He liked a good time and was known to be very generous and even frivolous with his family’s money. He was a nice and charming guy, but also liked to be the center of attention. As a result, he earned a bit of a reputation around Assisi as a prodigal son.
But there was also a deeper side to Francis, even at a young age. They say that he once turned away a beggar when he was busy at his father’s shop. But as he tried to get back to work, he felt terrible about how he had treated the man. So, he ran after him to give him some money and decided at that moment that he needed to treat everyone with civility, regardless of their social class.
Class struggles were a part of life in medieval and renaissance Italy. Certain city-states like Florence and Sienna vied for power over the region while aristocrats bumped heads with popular governments for control. In 1201, Assisi went to war against neighboring Perugia and Francis (and probably many of his friends) joined the militia. But their campaign against Perugia was a disaster. Many of the Assisi militia were killed and Francis and others were taken prisoner for at least a year.
We don’t know much more about what suffering and trauma he experienced, but war and prison took their toll on Francis. His physical and mental health suffered and when he was released to return home (possibly having been ransomed by his family), he became withdrawn, depressed, and isolated himself. He tried to enter back into the life he once knew, but things had changed and he struggled.
In search of some hope, some joy, some relief from what haunted him, Francis stopped working and started giving away money, and food, and anything else he could to people in need and to smaller churches in the area that were in disrepair and struggling. He saw these as acts of penance for his past sins. He disappeared into the forest and camped out in a cave for long periods of time. And he began spending more and more time at the small run-down church of San Damiano outside of Assisi. And it was there, in the sanctuary in front of its crucifix, that he had a profoundly emotional and mystical experience. He realized that he no longer had any interest in his old life. Ultimately, this caused a deep rift between him and his father, one that would, sadly, never be mended. And eventually Francis fully renounced his familial ties.
Afterwards, for a time, Francis wandered somewhat aimlessly, not sure where this path would take him. But things began to change when he began living and working at a leprosarium (a hospital for people with leprosy). He earned his keep by caring for the residents. And as he did, he began to learn something about grace. As he offered them mercy and compassion, he began to experience a deeper sense of God’s mercy and compassion for him. In serving others, he seemed to finally have found some peace, some sense of purpose, and some hope again.
After some time living as a relatively solitary penitent, two men from Assisi showed up at the church of San Damiano looking for Francis (both within a short period of time) and asked to join him in his life of penance and service. One was wealthier and one was poorer and both were inspired by Francis’ choice to “leave the world” (to use Francis’ words).
Francis didn’t go looking for a following but it seems one found him. He would later write of this moment, that “the Lord gave me some brothers.” And these three were just the beginning of the Franciscan order that would continue to develop within Francis’ lifetime and beyond.
During Francis’ life, this group of brothers would grow; they would secure papal approval for their order; and they would develop a rule of life to define their way of life and practice.
A group of women also followed in Francis’ way of life, led by a young aristocratic woman from Assisi named Chiara (or Clare) who also renounced her wealth and familial ties (much to her father’s disappointment) to enter into the life of a poor penitent.
Over time, the Franciscan tradition continued to grow and develop, but it has, by and large, held true to many of its founder’s passions, ideas, and ways of living into the gospel call to discipleship:
First, the gospel is the guide. Francis was not much of an administrator. This movement grew up around him despite his reluctance to be a leader. All he wanted to do was try to follow in the way of Jesus. But that captivated and called to people and so they followed him.
Francis was grounded in the church of his upbringing, but discovered a need for revitalization. At first this need was very personal. He needed to find a way to carry on after the trauma of war and the struggles he suffered in order to find some hope and peace again. But before too long, this passion for revitalization spread as more and more people followed in his footsteps longing for the same kind of deeper connection and experience of God.
Second, one can “leave the world” and live in it at the same time. Contemporary Franciscan friars often don’t live in cloistered monasteries like some other religious orders do. They live in communities just like the rest of us. And it is within their communities that they serve and minister to others. They have taken religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience not so they can withdraw from this world, but so they can devote their lives to service.
Francis had to let go of his old way of life in order to keep living. And so, he made a pretty radical change. So did Clare. In the words if Franciscan Friar, Richard Rohr, “he and Clare died into the life that they loved instead of living in fear of any death that could end their life. They were both so very eager to love, and they somehow knew that dying to the old and unneeded was an essential part of living this love at any depth.”
As a result, Francis discovered, as many have, that the path to a deeper experience and expression of God’s love is through loving and serving our neighbors. Those lepers Francis served probably saved his life.
Along with loving our human neighbors, there is an emphasis and passion within the Franciscan tradition for this world of God’s creation. Francis saw the cosmos and all creation as his kin. He experienced a sense of unity with them. He called the sun, brother and the moon, sister. Though he may not have actually preached a sermon to the birds (as legend would have it), he was said to have talked to the birds and to other animals as he would take his long wondering walks through the forest. Francis had a great love for animals and nature. And the Franciscan tradition, inspired by this passion, has continued to view all creation as alive with God’s Spirit, a unified whole – not separate from God who once created it, but alive in God who still creates. It was and is God’s love and vitality that enlivens all living things.
And that is why Christmas was so important to Francis and is to modern Franciscans. Both Easter and Christmas are important, of course, but Christmas celebrates and emphasizes that God is with us, here in this life, in this world; that God experiences our humanity; and that Jesus’ whole life from the beginning (not only his death and resurrection) illustrates the nature of God’s abundant love for all creation and all of us.
Francis was deeply inspired by the notion that the Son of God was born to a peasant family, born as a vulnerable baby (just as we all are), dependent upon others – born not to be a powerful ruler, but to be the servant of all. In fact, Francis loved the Christmas story so much that he created the first known nativity scene (possibly with at least some live animals, though reports are mixed) in the town of Greccio in 1226. He wanted to bring this story to life for people.
And people were deeply moved by it when they saw this scene and heard Francis share the nativity story during the Christmas service. Some even took a few pieces of straw from the manger as souvenirs and popular stories began to circulate that the straw would cure sick animals or help women have an easier labor and delivery. That was probably wishful thinking, but Francis’ nativity scene did inspire hope and faith as he intended.
And so, as we move into this season of Advent and anticipate the celebration of Christmas, I think the life of Francis and the Franciscan tradition offers some important reminders and practices that can help us along our Advent journey:
- If something isn’t serving your life or your neighbors well, let it go. Don’t be afraid to make a change. Not all life changes have to be as dramatic and radical as Francis’, don’t worry. But don’t be afraid to let go of some behavior, or thought pattern, or whatever is that’s holding you back from living your most authentic and meaningful life right now.
- Find joy in simplicity.
- Serve others. Most of you are probably already doing this. But especially when you’re feeling down, or frustrated, or longing to experience God’s love. Simply find a way to focus on loving others. It doesn’t always have to be huge. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Just focus on love. And trust that God can use you to help make lives better and bring more hope and peace into this world.
- Spend some time in nature. Give some animals attention and affection. Appreciate the beauty of this creation and look for God’s Spirit at work in this world.
- Set up a nativity scene or, at least, put up a picture of one. Every time you look at it, let it serve as a reminder that not only did God come to be with us so long ago, but that God is still with you. God’s been there. God knows. God is there. And God is still leading you on.
And so, I pray that your Advent journey, however it unfolds, will bring you spiritual renewal and fresh experiences of God’s incarnate love and presence. And may you be blessed with hope and inspired by joy. Amen.
Sources for this Sermon:
Rohr, Richard; Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi; Franciscan Media, 2014.
Thompson, Augustine; Francis of Assisi: A New Biography; Cornell University Press, 2012.