Galatians 6:14-18; Matthew 11:25-30
In the gospel, Jesus said that no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him (Matthew 11:30).
Sometimes the Son chooses to make the Father known in a dramatic way. Recall His encounter with St. Paul on the road to Damascus. Other times He is much more subtle; such was His encounter with the man we know and celebrate as Francis of Assisi.
Francis has born around the year 1181 and baptized as Giovanni di Bernadone. His father Pietro, probably the wealthiest merchant in Assisi, renamed him Francesco in honor of his profitable business dealings with France. He no doubt wanted his son to take after him but by all accounts the boy really did not; except perhaps in his grandiose dreams, for Francesco enjoyed envisioning himself as a great Knight of Assisi: Dashing, popular, the life of every party, full of wine and song, surrounded by friends and, of course, ladies in waiting.
It was in pursuit of his dreams that God first came to him. When Francesco was about 23, he set out on his quest to fight as a knight for Pope Innocent III. On the way, he fell ill and while recovering heard a strange voice ask, “Francesco, who can do more for you, the lord or the servant?” He answered, “The Lord.” The reply came, “Then why do you leave the lord for the servant, a rich lord for a poor man?” Sensing the voice of God, he asked, “Lord, what would you have me do?” to which the voice said, “Return home and you will be told what to do.” Soon after, Francesco returned home.
While he did not hear the voice again, God had a much more subtle and unexpected revelation in store.
The next year Francesco once again found himself on a journey; not as a warrior this time, just a young man on routine business. On the road he saw someone coming toward him. As they neared each other, it became evident that the man was a leper. In the words of Francesco’s first biographer, Thomas of Celano: “So greatly loathsome was the sight of lepers to him at one time, he used to say, that, in the days of his vanity, he would look at their houses only from a distance of two miles and he would hold his nostrils with his hands.” Nevertheless, on this day as this man approached, Thomas wrote that Francesco was somehow “made stronger than himself” and even kissed the man. Francis left that encounter feeling like a changed man.
There are many versions of that meeting and by now it’s difficult if not impossible to determine exactly what happened. It might have been an embrace; the leper may have kissed Francis in thanks for alms given; there are many possibilities. Regardless, I believe that this was the moment Francis first met Christ – not only in the leper but in himself.
Only God dwelling and alive within us has the power to make us stronger than ourselves. Only through the eyes of grace can we see as Francis came to see that in fact we are the lepers, sin is the disease; we are that man hobbling along the road of life, suffering, ragged, in need of healing in the hospital of the Church, the refuge and sanctuary for all the afflicted.
The treatment is penance. Its words are easy to say but as we have all learned, including Francis, its actions require dying to self; in the words of St. Paul, being crucified to the world and the world to us. The wounds of Christ given to Francis later in life are the most perfect outward sign of this inner reality.
So deeply was Francis affected by that encounter on the road, so great was its impact upon him that even as he lay dying, he dictated this first:
This is how the Lord gave me, brother Francis, the power to do penance. When I was in sin the sight of lepers was too bitter for me. And the Lord himself led me among them, and I pitied and helped them. And when I left them I discovered that what had seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness in my soul and body. And shortly afterward I rose and left the world.
Of all the things he might have chosen to begin with, Francis wanted to teach that the best and most mystical encounter we can have with Christ comes not from a voice on a sickbed or even a leper on the road but from the encounter with our own sinfulness. Only when we allow the Lord to lead us from the pain of penance through the conquest of our fears can we too rise and leave the world; not to abandon it, but that we may be Christ to it.
St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us.