A God Who Kneels Before Humanity
If we want to know how Francis of Assisi actually lived, we must read the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). If we want to know his heart, we must read John’s gospel. Many elements of his spirituality – his way of understanding the Cross and Jesus’ gift of his life, for example – are directly inspired by the fourth gospel. Here are a few guideposts Francis followed.
The conversion of Francis happened before the crucifix of San Damiano. Everything in this icon illustrates wonderfully the understanding that the Eastern Churches have of the death of Jesus. The stigmata – the marks of the wounds of Christ in the flesh of Francis – were given to him on the day of the glorious Cross. The themes of light, love and unity, as well as the relationship between the Son and the Father, upon which Francis meditated for a long time, are all elements that drew him closer to John’s gospel, especially chapters 13 to 17.
The Last Supper
We all know the importance that Francis gave to the Eucharist; his veneration of it is legendary. We should note that Francis deeply understood its meaning through drawing on the writings of John.
Unlike the other evangelists, John does not include the account of the bread and wine (see instead Mark 14:22-25; Matthew 26:26-29; Luke 22:15-20); scholars think that John believed that this section was covered well elsewhere. John the evangelist would have preferred to develop the meaning.
This account offers us the story of the washing of the feet (ch. 13) and a long discourse by Jesus to his disciples at the Last Supper. The Master left his seat and became a servant. Despite Peter’s resistance, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. “You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am” (v. 13). As the Master does, so should his disciples do. Francis understands in the depths of his soul that he wants to be like Christ; he will be the “servant of all,” like his Master (LP61).
The Poverty of God
Maurice Zundel, a major spiritual author of the 20th century, considered Francis one of the great theologians. He helps us understand that the poverty of God is one of the most appropriate ways to describe the Trinity. The Father keeps nothing for himself; he gives himself entirely to the Son. Conversely, the Son gives his whole self to the Father. Thus, they both give fully of themselves, in a continuous and generous impulse toward the other. God is poor because he has nothing to give but Himself.
Francis understood this at a deep level. The Manger, the Last Supper and the Cross are three ways in which God drew near to humanity. God emptied himself, manifesting himself in the most humble ways, in order to attain the human heart. The humility of God is one of Francis’ major points of wonder.
In the gospel of John, human beings are invited into an extraordinary intimacy between the Father and the Son. The Son pours out the Spirit onto his disciples. We therefore understand why Francis uses the word “Paraclete” – which is not often found elsewhere. He makes the Spirit the “minister” of his Order, the inspirer and advocate. Through the Spirit, who teaches everything (Jn 14:26; see also 16:13), we can follow in the footsteps of Christ (Letter to All the Friars 51).
As true sons of the Father, the first friars were urged at length to follow the Lord’s commandments, to take them up with all their hearts. This deep attachment to the words of the Lord was the mortar of the young community. The communion of hearts allowed the world to recognize the disciples of Jesus (Jn 17:21). That is why the distance between Francis and one part of the Order, toward the end of his life, was a great source of suffering for him. In his view, it was the Gospel itself that was being betrayed.
A Certain Victory
The cross represents for Francis the total victory of love over hate. His famous refrain “Love is not loved” reveals his understanding of the Cross: both a sign of God’s total gift to humanity and a sign of the rejection of this same gift by one part of humanity. Francis emphasized that God experienced the Cross, and that this sign of love is too often forgotten or betrayed.
Jesus remained faithful to his mission to the end. “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (Jn 10:18) and “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). Francis sees his own life as an offering for the coming of the Kingdom. The work that he has taken up is not his own, but the Father’s. It is the Father’s responsibility to bring it to completion. Then he will enter into the perfect Joy that Christ gives (Jn 16:24).
Guylain Prince, ofm