Embracing the Cross of Christ
Sister Joan Kerley, FMSJ
In 1226, Francis of Assisi wrote his Testament, in which he states: “And the Lord gave me such faith in churches that I would simply pray and speak in this way: ‘We adore you, Lord Jesus Christ, in all Your Churches throughout the world, and we bless You, for through Your holy cross You have redeemed the world.’” (para.1-5) Francis links the death of Jesus with the praise of God in creation and with an attitude of humble service. Awe and wonder flow from his writings as he reflects on the Incarnation and the Eucharist. While he realizes his own sinfulness, he is also absolutely confident in God ‘s loving mercy as witnessed to by Christ willingly laying down his life on the cross. Three events demonstrate his embrace of Jesus’s cross: Praying before the Icon San Damiano Crucifix, his daily recitation of The Office of the Passion, and receiving the Stigmata at LaVerna.
A Franciscan icon: The Crucifix of San Damiano:
In “Part Two: The San Damiano Crucifix” of his book The Franciscan Vision and the Gospel of John, Michael D. Guinan, O.F.M. discusses this icon crucifix which is a visual representation of Jesus’s passion told in the Gospel of John. Some brief points from his commentary include:
1. The figure of Christ: He notes that Jesus has a serene look on his face. Instead of the usual crown of thorns, a halo darkens the front of his face, reminding us of the Biblical image of the glory of God being pointed to by the appearance of a cloud.
2. The hands/feet/side: Although the blood from the feet flows naturally down to earth, the blood from the hands flows down Jesus’ arms onto the heads of the people below, reminding us that “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” (Jn.6:53)
3. The Garment: Instead of a simple loincloth, the artist paints an elegant white garment with gold trim, a “priestly vestment.” John’s Gospel portrays Jesus as one who takes control of the situation, the one who willingly lays down his life. (Jn.10:17-18)
4. The Community under Jesus’ arms: These include Mary and John on the left and Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and the Centurion on the right (representing the “royal official” whose son was cured, Jn. 4:46-54). A young man’s face, his son and the tops of 3 heads look over the centurion’s shoulder, illuminated by a bright light, symbolizing Jesus, the light of the world.
5. Other representations: As we move from the bottom to the top of the crucifix, we see the cock, the soldier with a spear, another soldier, or possibly a Jewish leader because of his different style of clothing, six angels, the Ascension, and Jesus seated at the right hand of the Father.
Daily recitation of The Office of the Passion
In his commentary on the writings of St. Francis, St. Francis of Assisi: Writings for a Gospel Life, Regis Armstrong O.F.M. Cap. describes The Office of the Passion, probably written between 1219 and 1226, as “a collection of prayers taken primarily from the Psalms but also from other passages of Scripture.” (p. 177) Armstrong notes that Francis shifted the intensity of his focus over his lifetime from the mystery of the Passion (psalms 1,2,4,5) to the wonder of the Nativity (psalm 15) around the time of Greccio (1223) to the hope of the Resurrection (psalms 6,7,8,9) after LaVerna and the reception of the Stigmata. He writes: “[the] daily recitation of these prayers over a period of time provides us marvelous insights into the heart of Francis and shows us how this devotion to Christ Crucified encouraged him to adopt that program of Gospel life we find in the Admonitions. (p.177)
Armstrong writes that it “is one of the most important writings of St. Francis, for it not only expresses his spirituality but also provides an insight into how that spirituality was formed on a daily basis… What is so remarkable, though, is the portrait of Jesus that emerges from the strokes of this biblical painter and how profoundly the artist identified with his subject… it is difficult to differentiate Francis from Jesus because the works of the psalmist are so personalized.” (pp. 184-5)
Francis’s devotion to Mary is shown by this Marian antiphon, said before and after each of the 7 Offices: “Holy Virgin Mary, there is no one like you among the women born in the world. Daughter and servant of the most high and supreme King and of the Father in heaven, Mother of our most holy Lord Jesus Christ, Spouse of the holy Spirit, pray for us with Saint Michael the Archangel, all the powers of heaven and all the saints, to your most holy beloved Son, our Lord and Master.”
His experience of receiving the Stigmata at La Verna
In August 1224 Francis of Assisi went to the hermitage at La Verna to pray and fast for 40 days to prepare to celebrate the feast of St. Michael the Archangel on 29 September. There on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Francis had a vision of a Seraph appearing to him with Christ fastened to the cross. As the Seraph approached, the marks of the Stigmata were imprinted on his body. He never spoke about this mystical experience, but he did write the prayer, The Praises of God, on a small piece of parchment for Brother Leo. Armstrong writes: “This is the writing of Francis the mystic… [who in using the familiar “Tu es, you are”] expresses an intimacy and familiarity that we do not expect from someone who usually writes in very reverential terms. But the repetition of the phrase establishes a rhythm or pulse that suggests Francis’s conviction that life itself is essentially caught up in the mystery of the living God.” (p.203) This event marks a major shift in Francis’s understanding of who God is: A God of Love, the One who is to be praised.
The Canticle of the Creatures in which he poetically describes the interconnectedness of all creation, one in which all are Brother and Sister called to “Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks and serve Him with great humility” is the second prayer written after he received the Stigmata.
As we continue our Lenten journey and contemplate the events of the Paschal Mystery in our Holy Week and Easter celebrations, may we take the time to ponder deeply the meaning of Christ’s death as Francis so often did and pray for the grace to be led ever more deeply into the Mystery of Christ’s redeeming love.