What a wonderful privilege it is for me to be here with you today. It is especially wonderful and I am so very grateful as a member and chaplain of the Franciscan order to invite Father Jeff to become a Companion of the Society of St. Francis.
Today we commemorate the Feast of the Epiphany often seen as the time when the wisemen visited Jesus and gave him the gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh. These were expensive gifts in the ancient world. Frankincense would be used as a perfume, Myrrh often as anointing oil and gold of course would only be owned by the richest.
Nativity scenes throughout the world depict three wieseman (although we don’t know how many there actually were) but what is interesting about these nativity scenes is that the first live nativity scene is credited to St. Francis. According to St. Bonaventure’s biography, St. Francis got permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals—an ox and an ass—in a cave in the Italian village of Greccio. He then invited the villagers to come gaze upon the scene while he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem.” So every time you see a nativity scene you can ponder this image of St. Francis with live animals and in fact, some nativity scenes will have a little image of St. Francis as a way to commemorate that.
But Francis was not trying to be cute. When he was praying in the rundown chapel of San Damiano and he heard the voice of God asking him to rebuild the church, he understood (not right away but eventually) the gravity of the work that needed to be done. For Francis it is the humility of Jesus that he wished to exemplify and it is this humility that is the way for each of us to live. Often we see images of Francis in gardens with his hands spread out holding birds - and it is a pious and sweet image but francis wore the clothes of poor man (that is what the franciscan habit is). He was most likely dirty, unshaven and repulsed many of the people in Assisi and other places he visited. You see Francis chose poverty - in fact he was known as il poverello (the little poor one). Now don’t confuse that with poverty that is not chosen. There is a difference when you choose to live simply versus when you are struggling to put food on the table. Two very different things. For Francis a chosen poverty allowed him to seek the humility of Christ. As we are told by St. Paul in his letter to the Phillipians, "Christ was humble. He obeyed God and even died on a cross. He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross."
Murray Bodo has written a book called Surrounded by Love: The Seven Teachings of St. Francis, and the 1st teaching he mentions is the wonder of the incarnation of Christ. For Francis the incarnation of Christ was not a one time event. In one of his letters he wrote, “We are mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ when we carry him on our hearts. And that leads to the 2nd teaching - that of poverty which is really about being humble; so, the question that Bodo asks us to reflect on is, ‘What is it I am holding on too tightly that is stopping God from finding a place within me...that’s is stopping me from being the mother of Christ?’
The 3rd teaching is to live the Gospel. In a recent sermon I gave at Christ Church Brampton during advent focussed on the crooked roads. John the Baptist quotes Isaiah when he exhorts that in order to prepare the way of the Lord, we need to make the crooked roads straight. Francis understood this all too well. Bodo writes that God’s truth is that we are to love God, and loving God will show us how to love our neighbour. As long as there is poverty the roads are crooked, as long as there is political Injustice the roads are crooked, as long as there is inequity, racism and homophobia, as long as we have not made things right with the indigenous peoples of this land the roads remain crooked. As long as our mother earth is suffering by the actions of humankind the roads remain crooked. To live the Gospel does not mean to sit silently in prayer alone - that is ok but Jesus, his disciples and the early church were people of action and social justice. To live out the Gospel, you need to be out there in whatever way you can and "Go and Repair God’s house."
Those were the words that Francis heard from the cross and it is the 4th teaching. How do we rebuild God’s house? How do we establish the Kingdom of God here on earth? You see Francis understood that it was his and our responsibility to just that. It is why God sent us the Holy Spirit - to give us the wisdom and guidance needed. Remember Matthew chapter 25? This is where we receive a clear direction from Jesus on how we are to usher in God’s kingdom: ‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
Most definitely one of the fruits of action, if we are so bold to take it and we should be bold to do so as children of God, is peace. This is the 5th teaching of St. Francis - making peace. Pope Francis, writes that St. Francis shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society and interior peace. It is a peace that comes from action not from meditation and prayer alone. The latter are important but as a deacon of the church I am to remind you that you are called to use your gifts whatever they are in order to establish that ultimate peace on earth - to help establish God’s kingdom here once and for all. And this brings us to St. Francis’ 6th teaching - that God’s kingdom is all of creation.
Francis exhorts us that “at dawn when the sun rises, everyone should praise God who has created Brother Sun for our service, for through him our eyes light up the day; in the evening, when night descends, everyone should praise God through Brother Fire, for through him our eyes light up the night. We should praise the Lord, then, in a special way for these creatures and for the others too who serve us day by day.
The now late Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” My brothers and sisters, this is the 7th teaching of St. Francis. To go forth into the world with the joy of humble praise and service to God. And your service to God is inevitably service to your fellow humankind. In Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, when the ghost of Jacob Marley visits Ebenezeer Scrooge, Scrooge says to the ghost who was suffering in death because he didn't bother to help humankind when he was alive, he says to him, "But you were always a good man of business, Jacob." "Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business."
You see, my siblings - the greatest truth we need to occupy ourselves with is each other’s suffering and when we do so we gift each other with gifts far greater than that of the wisemen. Behold your purpose as Christians. As the old song says, "they will know we are Chirstians by our love, by our love," and may I dare say they will know THAT love by our actions.