Advent offering -20 December

One of the sayings attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi – “preach the Gospel everywhere; use words if necessary” – was probably never said by him (Same, by the way, with the “Peace Prayer of Saint Francis” through which we groaned our way to various musical settings at primary school).

Even so, the attributed advice does accurately reflect Francis’s approach to preaching. In a recent biography of Saint Francis, Augustine Thompson observes that most of the early followers of Francis had no previous experience of preaching. Though Franciscans would become – along with Dominicans – the preaching experts of the mediaeval church, the first ones may not have been that good at it.

Or, at least, they may not have been that good at traditional preaching; Francis seems to have been a creative genius when it came to less traditional expressions of the genre. The content of his sermons may not have been particularly cerebral, but he was skilled at reaching his audience at an emotional and intuitive level.

Giotto, c1300, Saint Francis preparing the Christmas crib at Greccio, http://uploads0.wikipaintings.org/images/giotto/st-francis-of-assisi-preparing-the-christmas-crib-at-grecchio-1300.jpg!HalfHD.jpg (Wikimedia)
Giotto, c1300, Saint Francis preparing the Christmas crib at Greccio, http://uploads0.wikipaintings.org/images/giotto/st-francis-of-assisi-preparing-the-christmas-crib-at-grecchio-1300.jpg!HalfHD.jpg (Wikimedia)

It can’t be said of many preachers that the effect of a single sermon reaches through the centuries, but I think this can fairly be said of Francis’s sermon preached in retirement from the village of Greccio. Here’s the account from Thompson’s biography:

Greccio during that Christmas season witnessed one of the most touching and revealing incidents in Francis’s life. Two weeks or so before the feast, Francis called on a certain John of Greccio, with whom he was familiar, and had him erect a grotto modelled on Bethlehem, with straw-filled manger, ox and ass, and an image of the Child Jesus. He placed it within the church’s choir screen, near the altar. On Christmas night the townspeople gathered by torchlight to contemplate the scene. The friars sang the Vigils of the Nativity, which at that time immediately preceded Midnight Mass. Francis served as the deacon for the Mass, and, after singing the Gospel, he entered the pulpit and preached on the Nativity of the Saviour.

Overcome with emotion, Francis pronounced the words “Babe of Bethlehem” in such as way that those hearing thought they could hear the bleating of the sheep around the manger scene. He picked up the figure of the Child, held it in his arms, and presented it for the devotion of those present. John of Greccio thought he saw the previously lifeless image vivified and remade as the living Christ Child. At the end of the service, those present entered the sanctuary and took pieces of straw to keep as relics. Reports circulated that sick domestic animals recovered their health, and women in labour touched with it had easy deliveries…

The humiliation of the Son of God, who became a child in the stable amid squalor and domestic animals, was for Francis, a model of spiritual perfection. the one who had died for sin on the Cross chose to be born a weak child, subject to all. Francis wanted animals, and even inanimate creation to share in the joyful celebration of Christmas.

Augustine Thompson, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 108-109)

Historians are usually allergic to attributing great historical changes to the actions of an individual, but it’s probably not stretching the facts too far to say that Francis of Assisi was largely responsible for the creation of Christmas as we experience it now: the carols, the manger, the sentiment (and sentimentality) the lay “ownership” of the festivities.

This “affective piety” (i.e. a spirituality of the senses and emotions”) was spread by the Franciscan order to Europe and then Asia and the Americas. Its effects can be seen in everything from the sensuality of Catholic Baroque to those Pentecostal choruses, whose chord changes and simple theology are aimed at a worshipper’s heart rather than his or her head. But the aftermath of Francis’s piety can be seen above all in the tenacity of Christmas as a popular feast, despite the reserve or open disapproval voiced by Christians of a severer mind-set.

As an academic, I’m trained to approach the emotional and intuitive with a certain caution, to think things through carefully and prefer suspending judgement to taking the affective leap that Francis wants me to. That’s no problem. Francis has his job, I have mine. But my constant delight as an historian is also to be reminded that there is another side of life that involves the curative properties of manger straw and preachers imitating sheep from from the pulpit – and that human life would be mighty arid and dreary without it.

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