A sermon for the Feast of the Stigmata of St Francis.
I’ve been asked if in my reflections tonight I can reflect a little upon the Stigmata of Francis. The strange gift given him when, about two years before his death praying and mediating on Mount Alverno, Francis had a vision of a six-winged seraph in the form of a crucified man with the face of Jesus. As the vision ended, Francis himself had received wounds on his hands and his feet and in his side – the wounds of the crucified Jesus, nailed to the cross and pierced in his side by a lance. It is, if you like, a very particular and graphic way of fulfilling our Gospel reading: ‘if anyone would come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me’ (Luke 9.23).
Francis was a man who tried to pattern his life on Jesus, who tried to deny himself, take up his cross each day and follow Jesus. Francis’ ministry began with the cross of San Damiano, the cross that spoke to him saying ‘build my church’. His life and ministry ended bearing the stigmata, the wounds of Jesus. Francis’ first instinct was to hide them, of course, this was not about glorifying himself. But his brothers caught glimpses – he had to bandage his hands, wear slippers instead of going barefoot, and he bled from his side. He could barely walk, and needed the care of his brothers for the final two years of his life. We speak of the gift of the stigmata, but it was a costly gift indeed. It was a gift of wounds, real wounds, with real pain and real cost. Wounds that needed bandaging, wounds that needed care, wounds that weakened Francis and which quite probably hastened his death. This is the gift we celebrate tonight – the gift of wounds.
As we celebrate and reflect upon Francis’ stigmata, I want also to suggest five ways in which we in our discipleship, bear the wounds of the cross. Five marks by which we too take up our cross and follow Jesus each day. They too are wounds. I’ll outline them now, and then later we will have a chance to discuss more deeply what they might mean for us.
The first way in which we are marked by the cross, the first wound that we carry, is the wound of justice. This wound comes from the Jesus crucified after a mockery of a trial, Jesus condemned to a tortuous death, Jesus executed by a state more interested in order than in justice. At the heart of our faith is this injustice, that wounds us and makes us cry out for justice. It is no accident that Christians throughout the ages have opposed the death penalty, have opposed torture, have worked for the human rights of all. Think of Francis beginning his ‘penance’ by giving gifts to lepers and kissing their hands, and then receiving the kiss of peace in return. Or the Fransiscan order’s long history of redeeming slaves in the holy land. Jesus himself talked of those who hunger and thirst for justice – justice for Christians is a longing, a thirst, a wound. It is a mark of the cross that we carry.
The second way in which we are marked by the cross is through Scripture. I notice that nowhere in Francis’ rule does he tell his brothers to read the scriptures (with the exception of providing a Psalter for those who can read, Rule of 1221, III.7-8). Yet the rule is soaked in scripture from beginning to end. We, like Francis and like Jesus are to be people marked by, immersed in, or at the very least readers of Scripture. The cross of Jesus is both only understood through the scriptures and also transforms the way in which we read the scriptures. The cross of Jesus, in all four of the Gospels, is written about in a way that is highly allusive of other parts of the Bible. From the exodus stories, to the Psalms, to the Servant of Isaiah’s prophecy and more besides, the scriptures permeate and underlie the way in which the story of the cross is told. But think also of the story of the road to Emmaus, when Jesus walks alongside the two disciples and, starting with Moses, explains the Scriptures to them. The cross transforms the way we read the scriptures, finding the focal point in the death of Jesus on a rubbish dump outside Jerusalem. The disciples on the Emmaus road felt their hearts burn within them as they listened to Jesus explain the scriptures. The scriptures should burn us too, wounding us as they draw us in to find ourselves within their pages.
The wound of justice; the wound of scripture and the wound of obedience. A very Franciscan wound, one might say. The Mirror of Perfection has Francis describing obedience in this way: “Take up a dead body and lay it where you will. It does not resist being moved, complain of its position, or ask to be left alone. If lifted onto a chair it does not look up but down; if clothed in purple it appears paler than before” (Mirror 48). Francis here offers an uncompromising account of obedience, but it is no less than that St Paul speaks about in Philippians chapter 2, when he speaks of Christ being “obedient unto death, even death on the cross”. Christ’s obedience, seen on the cross, shows us the self-giving, self-emptying nature of God. It is this that we are called to follow. Perhaps we are better looking at the times when we have been emptied, rather than when we heroically emptied ourselves. The times when we have encountered death, or illness, or loss. These are times which can embitter us. They are also times when we can be most honest and most open to God because we are empty and not filled with the things that distract and pull us away from God. These are the times when we are most like God, because we are empty. They are times of paradoxical obedience, but no less wounds for that.
Justice, scripture, obedience: these are ways in which we are marked by the cross. They are wounds that we carry. And the fourth that I want to speak of is the wound of forgiveness. Forgiveness is tied up with the cross of Jesus. From the last supper when Jesus passes the cup of wine around and says, ‘this is my blood which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’, to the words Jesus says as he is crucified, ‘Father forgive them, they know not what they do’, forgiveness and the cross are inseparable. Forgiveness is rarely an easy subject to deal with, except perhaps in the abstract. It is all very well talking about forgiveness as a matter of general principle, but when there is something concrete that needs to be forgiven, it is always much harder. To forgive involves a giving up, a giving up of my position as the victim, a giving up of the claim that I have over you, a giving up of anger and pain. Francis knew of the wound of forgiveness, and the Canticle of Brother Sun says this: “Praised be my Lord, through those who give pardon for love of you, and suffer infirmity and tribulation. Blessed are they who endure all in peace, for they, O God most high, will be crowned by you” (Cant. 10-11). Forgiveness is at the heart of Christian faith, but it is costly and wounding. It is a mark of the cross that we carry.
Given to the Derby branch of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis, Chapel of St Mary on the Bridge, 19.9.12. (The Feast of the Stigmata is the 17th September.)