This blog continues our Lent 2021 series of reflections on the Franciscan Intellectual-Spiritual Tradition by a variety of women and men Franciscans.
The preceding prayer concluded Francis’s “A Letter to the Entire Order” and is as relevant a prayer for us in our days as it was for Francis in his. It is an especially invitational piece when we contemplate it in the spirit of Lent.
Francis begins this prayer, as he often does in other prayers, using superlative language to name God. He then shifts his focus to human beings, we “miserable ones.” It would be easy to misunderstand Francis here as someone who despises human beings. Instead, it is more accurate to see Francis as beginning with the vast chasm that separates creator and created; there is nothing that creation can do to diminish this distance.
Yet, as incapable as we are of meriting God’s grace, God still lavishes this upon us abundantly. Although finite beings are unable to perfect themselves, in a Franciscan anthropology the infinite being and goodness of God knows no limits. When Francis puts us (notice he uses “us”) in the boundless creativity of God’s tender hands, we can be wholly transformed even from our lowliest of states.
For Francis, Jesus is not only God incarnate—that is, God coming to us—but also the perfect model of discipleship—that is, our following God. Again, this prayer reminds us that we need God’s grace to follow in the footsteps of Christ, and the season of Lent especially reminds us that part of that walk includes the crucifixion. And we do well to contemplate the way the Franciscan tradition understands the crucifixion.
As the late friar and prolific scholar Kenan Osborne wrote in Thomas Nairn’s Franciscan Moral Vision, dominant within Christianity are the “victim” and “victor” interpretations of the crucifixion. The victim interpretation emphasizes Adam and Eve’s fall and humanity’s need for a blameless sacrifice in Christ. The victor interpretation amplifies the resurrection as the last word over sin and death. Osborne argues for a third interpretation, articulated by Scotus: revealer. In this interpretation, the crucifixion is the culmination of a single message: God love us. From the incarnation onward, Christ’s every action and word pointed to that message of love. The crucifixion is best understood, then, as the ultimate expression of love. God, in this understanding, acts first.
And each of the steps of our Lenten journey should bring us closer to Easter. In our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, our hearts should be prepared to receive the promise of newness. The imagery Francis uses for the Holy Spirit is that of fire. This time of year, fire points us to the Paschal candle. Many churches distribute slender, white taper candles to those in attendance. We see that what begins as one small light in the darkness can give flame after flame, with the original fire never diminishing even while its light spreads all throughout the sanctuary.
And this is how the Holy Spirit prepares us over Lent to receive this Easter newness, generatively enkindling, refining, purifying. As we open our hearts through our Lenten observances, Francis invites the Spirit to go about the business of cleansing us inwardly, to rid us of any obstacles that prevent us from growing in greater holiness. The Spirit is also invited to illuminate our interior lives, to help us to see, think, imagine, and love in new ways. Finally, Francis desires that we be motivated by the Spirit, that our interior transformations manifest outwardly.
Francis’s prayer and my reflection both take the Trinity seriously. For the Franciscan tradition, the fact that God is Triune is not simply a dogma for the intellectual realm; the Trinity should have repercussions in our lives. Scripture and tradition establish key things. First, God is love. Second, as Trinity, God is in loving relationship with Godself. Finally, humankind was created in the image and likeness of a loving and relational God; this means we are most human when we are in loving relationship with God and one another.
Dr. Maureen Day is the assistant professor of religion and society at the Franciscan School of Theology and research fellow at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. Her books and articles can be found in both Catholic and academic publications and include Catholic Activism Today (NYU Press 2020) and Young Adult American Catholics (Paulist Press 2018).