During the season of Lent this year I have been thinking about the life of St. Francis of Assisi. When Cardinal Bergoglio became pope and took the name of Francis I earlier this year, I realized that I didn’t know very much about St. Francis at all. I have been grateful for the opportunity to learn more about this extraordinary saint.
St. Francis is by now a cultural fixture—famous for his love for animals, his solidarity with the poor, his identification with the sufferings of Jesus. But it wasn’t always this way. Early in his ministry, Francis was viewed with suspicion and ridicule. He and his brothers in the order owned no property or money, and they begged for their meals. Even more shockingly, Francis did not shun lepers but would embrace them and kiss their sores. The first responses to St. Francis were fearful and hostile. He was considered a dangerous madman before he was revered as a saint.
The great Italian director Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 film, The Flowers of Saint Francis, dramatizes this early negative response to Francis and his community. In one vignette, a character called Brother Ginepero sets off on a preaching mission and wanders into the camp of a group of barbarian warriors. They seize him and violently play with him, at one point using him as a human jump rope. Ginepero is finally taken to the tent of the tyrant Nicolaio, who plans to execute the little monk.
During the private audience between the warrior and Franciscan brother, it becomes clear that Nicolaio has never seen anyone like Ginepero. He is peaceful, trusting, and kind. The barbarian is ultimately shamed and conquered by Ginepero’s humility and lets him go.
Although this episode is probably not historical, there is a deep truth in this vignette from The Flowers of St. Francis. Nicolaio and his warriors want first to mock, then to kill Brother Ginepero. And so with us: when we meet absolute purity, innocence, and humility in one person, something in us wants to destroy them. You don’t need to read very far in the Gospels before you see this same reaction to Jesus. Though many—especially the sick, the poor, the outcast—are drawn to Jesus’ holiness, others—particularly those with power—see his innocence as a threat. In the words of today’s reading from the Wisdom of Solomon
Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange. [The Wisdom of Solomon, 2]
Philosophers and theologians have studied endlessly to define the concept of evil. Nobody ever agrees entirely about what evil is, but all seem to start from the idea that it has to do somehow with the suffering of the innocent. The evil on display at the cross is like the evil that confronts St. Francis and his brothers. The pain of Good Friday lies in the way it shows us our (usually unconscious) complicity with those who cause the innocent to suffer. You and I respond to people like Jesus, like Francis, like the holy women and men among us, with aggression before we do so with admiration. We respond to them that way because something in them reminds us of the parts of our selves we would rather not acknowledge. It is a sign of God’s forbearance, mercy, and grace toward us that these holy fools keep showing up in our lives. Like the tyrant Nicolaio, we would like to kill or at best humiliate them. Like brother Ginepero, like Francis, like Jesus himself they ultimately prevail despite our worst intentions.
As we gather at the cross of Jesus this afternoon, let us ask ourselves: what is it about him that we cannot stand? What is it about Jesus that shows up the part of ourselves that we cannot accept? In the words of scripture, “the righteous man is a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us.” We will continue to take Jesus and people like him to the cross so long as we ignore and disown the dark places in our own hearts.
Today as we gather at the cross, let us remember that Holy Week and Easter are a redemptive process. God is in search of us. The first step on the road to Easter involves naming and loving even those aspects of our life and behavior that we ourselves want to deny. God loves you as you are—even those places you neither know nor love yourself. God is in search of us. As we open ourselves to God’s healing light, we will no longer need to bring Jesus and his brothers and sisters to the cross. Amen.