Father Cantalamessa on the Mystery of the Incarnation Contemplated Through Francis of Assisi's Eyes

3rd Avent Homily: "to prepare ourselves for Christmas in the company of Francis of Assisi"

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Here is a translation of the third and final Advent sermon by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the pontifical household. Father Cantalamessa gave the sermon today, continuing with his theme for this Advent, which has been St. Francis of Assisi.

Today's reflection is titled "The Mystery of the Incarnation Contemplated through Francis of Assisi’s Eyes."

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Greccio and the Institution of the Crib

We all know Francis’ story at Greccio where, three years before his death, he initiated the Christmas tradition of the Crib, but it is good to recall it for the highest leaders in this circumstance.  Well, Celano wrote:

“About two weeks before the feast of the Nativity, Blessed Francis called a man named John to himself and said to him: ‘If you would like us to celebrate Jesus’ day of birth at Greccio, precede me and prepare all that I tell you: I would like to represent the babe born at Bethlehem , and in some way see with my bodily eyes the hardships in which he found himself because of the lack of necessary things for a newborn, as he was laid in a manger  and how he was lying on the hay between the ox and the donkey.’ […] And the day of gladness arrived. Francis put on the diaconal vestments as he was a deacon, and sang the holy Gospel with a resounding voice: that strong and sweet voice, limpid and sonorous enraptured all with desires of Heaven. Then he spoke to the people and with very sweet words called to mind the poor newborn King and the little town of Bethlehem. “[1]

The importance of the episode does not lie so much in the fact itself or in the spectacular following it had in the Christian tradition; it lies in the novelty that it reveals of the Saint’s understanding of the mystery of the Incarnation. The excessive unilateral insistence, at times downright obsessive, on the ontological aspects of the Incarnation, (nature, person, hypostatic union, communication of languages) had often made one lose from view the true nature of the Christian mystery, reducing it to a speculative mystery, to be formulated with ever more rigorous categories, but far removed from the capacity of the people.

Francis of Assisi helps us to integrate the ontological vision of the Incarnation, with the more existential and religious vision. In fact, it does not only matter to know that God became man, it is important to know also what type of man he became. Significant is the different and complementary way in which John and Paul describe the event of the Incarnation. For John it consists in the fact that the Word who was God was made flesh (cf. John 1:1-14); for Paul it consists in the fact that “Christ, being of divine nature, took the form of a servant and he humbled himself and became obedient unto death” (cf. Philippians 2:5 ff.). For John, the Word, being God, became man; for Paul “Christ, though he was rich became poor” (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:9).

Francis of Assisi is placed in the line of Saint Paul. More than on the ontological reality of the humanity of Christ (in which he believed firmly with the whole Church), he insisted , to the point of being overwhelming, on the humility and poverty of his humanity. The sources say that two things had the power to movehim to tears every time he heard talk about them: “the humility of the Incarnation and the charity of the Passion.”[2] “He could not think about the great penury, in which the poor Virgin found herself that day, without weeping. Once, when he was seated for lunch, a brother reminded him of the poverty of the Blessed Virgin and the indigence of Christ her Son. He rose from the table immediately, broke out in sobs of grief and, with his face bathed in tears, ate the rest of the bread on the naked ground.”[3]

Thus Francis gave back “flesh and blood” to the mysteries of Christianity, often “disincarnated” and reduced to concepts and syllogisms in theological schools and books. A German scholar has seen in Francis the one who has created the conditions for the birth of modern Renaissance art , in as much as it sets free sacred persons and events from the stylized rigidity of the past and confers on them concreteness and life.[4]

Christmas and the Poor

The distinction between the fact of the Incarnation and the way of it, between its ontological and its existential dimension, is of interest to us because it casts a singular light on the present-day problem of poverty and the attitude of Christians to it. It helps to give a biblical and theological foundation to the preferential option for the poor, proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council. If, indeed, by the fact of the Incarnation, the Word has, in a certain sense, assumed every man, as certain Fathers of the Church said, because of the way in which the Incarnation happened, the Word assumed, in an altogether particular claim, the poor, the humble, the suffering to the point of identifying himself with them.

In the poor there is certainly not the same kind of presence of Christ that there is in the Eucharist and in the other Sacraments, but it is a presence that is also true, “real.” He “instituted” this sign, as he instituted the Eucharist. He who pronounced over the bread the words: “This is my Body,” said these same words also of the poor. He said them when, saying what had been done or not done, for the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner, the naked and the exiled, he declared solemnly: “You did it to me” and “You did not do it to me.” This, in fact, is the same as saying: “I was that wounded person in need of some bread, that old man who was dying stiff with cold on the sidewalk!” “The Conciliar Fathers,” wrote Jean Guitton, lay observer at Vatican II, “have rediscovered the sacrament of poverty, the presence of Christ under the species of those who suffer.”[5]

The poor person is also a “vicar of Christ,” one who takes the place of Christ, Vicar, in the passive not the active sense. Not in the sense, that is, that what the poor person does is as if Christ did it, but in the sense that what is done to the poor person is as if it were done to Christ. It is true, as Saint Leo the Great wrote, that after the Ascension, ”all that was visible in our Lord Jesus Christ has passed into the sacramental signs of the Church,”[6] but it is equally true that, from the existential point of view it has also passed onto the poor and onto all those of whom he said: “you did it to me.”

Let us draw the consequence that derives from all this on the plane of ecclesiology. On the occasion of the Council, John XXIII coined the expression “Church of the poor.”[7] It has a meaning that goes, perhaps, beyond that which is understood at first sight. The Church of the poor is not constituted only by the poor of the Church! In a certain sense, all the poor of the world, whether they are baptized or not, belong to her. Their poverty and suffering is their baptism of blood. If Christians are those who have been “baptized into the death of Christ” (Romans 6:3), who in fact is more baptized than they are in the death of Christ?

How can they not be considered, in some way, Church of Christ, if Christ himself has declared them his body? They are “Christians,” not because they declare themselves as belonging to Christ, but because Christ has declared them as belonging to himself: “You did it to me!” If there is a case in which the controversial expression “anonymous Christians” can have a plausible application, it is in fact this one of the poor.

Hence, the Church of Christ is immensely vaster than what the current statistics say. Not by simply saying this, but truly, really. None of the founders of religions has identified himself with the poor as Jesus did. No one has proclaimed: “All that you did to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40), where the “least brother” does not indicate only a believer in Christ but, as all admit, every man.

Deriving from this is that the Pope, Vicar of Christ, is truly the “Father of the poor,” the shepherd of this immense flock, and it is a joy and a stimulation for all Christian people to see how much this role has been taken to heart by the last Supreme Pontiffs and in an altogether particular way, by the shepherd who sits today on Peter’s Chair. He is the most authoritative voice that is raised in their defense, the voice of those who do not have a voice. He certainly has not “forgotten the poor”!

What the Pope wrote, in the recent Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, on the necessity not to remain indifferent in face of the tragedy of poverty in today’s globalized world, brings an image to my mind. We tend to put double glazing between us and the poor. The effect of double glazing, so exploited today in the building industry, is that it impedes the passage of cold, of heat, of noise, it dilutes everything, it deadens and muffles everything. And in fact we see the poor move, agitated, screaming behind the television screen, on the pages of newspapers and missionary magazines, but their cry reaches us as if from very far away. It does not penetrate our heart. I say it to my own embarrassment and shame. The word: “the poor!” arouses in rich countries what the cry “the barbarians” aroused in ancient Romans: disconcert, panic. They were anxious to build walls and send armies to the border to keep them at bay; we do the same thing in other ways. But history says that it is all useless.

We cry and protest – and rightly so! – for the children who are impeded from being born, but should we not do as much for the millions of children born and left to die from hunger, sicknesses, children constrained to engage in war and kill one another for interests of which we in rich countries are not strangers? Might it not be because they belong to our continent and have our same color, while the latter belong to another continent and have a different color? We protest – and more than justly! – for the elderly, the sick, the malformed who are helped (sometimes pushed) to die with euthanasia, but should we not do as much for the elderly who die frozen from cold or abandoned alone to their fate? The laissez-fare law of “live and let live” should never be transformed into the law of “live and let die,” as is instead happening in the whole world.

The natural law is certainly holy, but precisely to have the strength to observe it we need to start from faith in Jesus Christ. Saint Paul wrote: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son” (Romans 8:3). With their customs, the early Christians helped the State to change their laws; we Christians of today cannot do the contrary and think that it is the State with its laws that must change people’s customs.

Love, Help, Evangelize the Poor

The first thing to do, therefore, in relation to the poor, is to break the double glazing, to overcome our indifference and insensibility. As the Pope in fact exhorts us, we must become “aware” of the poor, allow ourselves to be gripped by a healthy anxiety over their presence in our midst, often two steps from our home. What we should do concretely for them, can be summarized in three words: love them, help them, and evangelize them.

Love the poor. Love for the poor is one of the most common traits of Catholic holiness. In Saint Francis himself, as we saw in the first meditation, love for the poor, beginning from the poor Christ, comes before love of poverty and it was that which led him to marry poverty. For some Saints, such as Vincent de Paul, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and countless others, love for the poor was in fact their way to holiness, their charism.

To love the poor means first of all to respect them and recognize their dignity. In them, precisely because of the lack of other titles and secondary distinctions, the radical dignity of the human being shines in them in a more vivid light. In a Christmas homily given at Milan, Cardinal Montini said: “The complete vision of human life under the light of Christ sees in a poor person something more than a needy one; he sees a brother mysteriously clothed in a dignity, which obliges to render him reverence, to receive him with solicitude, to sympathize with him beyond merit.”[8]

However, the poor not only merit our commiseration; they also merit our admiration. They are the true champions of humanity. Every year cups, and gold, silver and bronze medals are distributed for merit or to the memory of someone or to winners of competitions. And perhaps only because they were able to run in a fraction of a second less than another 100, 200 or 400 meters over obstacles, and to jump a centimeter higher than others, or win a marathon or a slalom competition.

Yet if one were to observe what mortal jumps, what resistance, what slalom the poor are sometimes capable of, and not once but their whole life, the records of the most famous athletes would seem child’s play. What is a marathon in comparisons, for instance, with a rickshaw-man of Calcutta, who at the end of his life has done on foot the equivalent of several tours around the world, in the most enervating heat, pulling one or two passengers, through disordered streets, between holes and puddles, wriggling between one car and another not to have himself overturned?

Francis of Assisi helps us to discover an even stronger motive to love the poor: the fact that they are not simply our “fellow men” or our “neighbor”: they are our brothers! Jesus said: “You have one Father who is in Heaven and you are all brethren” (cf. Matthew 23:8-9), but this word was understood up to then as addressed only to the disciples. In the Christian tradition, brother in the strict sense is only one who shares the same faith and has received the same Baptism.

Francis takes up Christ’s word and gives it a universal significance which is certainly that which Jesus also had in mind.  Francis truly put “the whole world in the state of brotherhood.”[9] He calls not only his friars and companion in the faith brothers, but also lepers, brigands, Saracens, that is, believers and non-believers, the good and bad, above all the poor. He extends the concept of brother and sister  -and this is absolute novelty - also to inanimate creatures: the sun, the moon, the earth, water, and finally death. This, evidently, is more poetry than theology. The Saint knew well that between them and human creatures, made in the image of God, there is the same difference that there is between the son of an artist and the works created by him. But it is because the Poverello’s sense of fraternity is boundless.

This issue of brotherhood is the specific contribution that the Christian faith can make to reinforce peace in the world and the struggle against poverty, as the theme of the next World Day of Peace suggests: “Fraternity, Foundation and Path for Peace.” Thinking well, it is the only true  foundation. What sense is there in fact to speak of fraternity and human solidarity, if one begins from a certain scientific vision of the world which admits, as the only forces in action in the world, “chance and necessity”? In other words, if one begins from a philosophical vision such as that of Nietzsche, according to whom the world is only will to power and any attempt to oppose this is only a sign of the resentment of the weak against the strong”? Those are right who say that “if being is only chaos and strength, action that seeks peace and justice is destined inevitably to remain without foundation.”[10] What is lacking in this case is a sufficient reason to oppose unbridled laissez-fare and the “inequity” energetically criticized by the Pope in the Exhortation Evangelii gaudium.

To the duty of loving and respecting the poor there follows that of helping them. Here Saint James comes to our aid. Of what profit, he says, is it to be moved to pity before a brother or a sister lacking clothes and food and saying to them: “Poor thing, how you suffer! Go, be warmed and filled!” and you do not give them anything of which they are in need to warm themselves and be nourished? Compassion, like faith, is dead without works (cf. James 2:15-17). In his judgment, Jesus will not say to us: “I was naked and you had compassion for me,” but “I was naked and you clothed me.” It is not about getting angry with God in face of the misery of the world, but with ourselves. One day, seeing a small girl shivering with cold and crying from hunger, a man was seized by a feeling of rebellion and shouted: “O God, where are you? Why don’t you do something for that innocent creature?” But an interior voice responded: “I certainly have done something. I have made you!” And he understood immediately.

Today, however, simple alms are not enough. The problem of poverty has become global. When the Fathers of the Church spoke about the poor they were thinking of the poor of their city, or at most those of the neighboring city. They virtually did not know anything else,  and on the other hand, even if they had known it, it would have been difficult to bring aid in a society such as theirs. Today we know that alms is not enough, even though nothing dispenses us from doing what we can also at the individual level.

The example of so many men and women of our time shows us that there are so many things that can be done to help -- each one according to his means and possibilities  -- to help the poor and to promote their uplifting. Speaking of the “cry of the poor” in Evangelica testificatio, Paul VI said in particular to us Religious: “It induces certain ones among you to reach the poor in their condition, to share their piercing anxieties. On the other hand, it invites not a few of your institutes to reconvert certain of their works in favor of the poor.”[11]

To eliminate or reduce the unjust and scandalous abyss that exists between the rich and the poor in the world is the most urgent and most immense task that the millennium that concluded a short while ago consigned to the new millennium which we have entered. Let’s hope that it will not be again the number one problem that the present millennium leaves in inheritance to the next one.

Finally, to evangelize the poor. This was the mission that Jesus recognized as his par excellence: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18) and that he indicated as a sign of the presence of the Kingdom to the emissaries of the Baptist: “and the poor have good news preached to them (Matthew 11:5). We must not allow our bad conscience to push us to commit the enormous injustice of depriving of the good news those who are the first and more natural recipients of it, adducing, perhaps, as our excuse, the proverb that “a hungry stomach has no ears.”

Jesus multiplies the loaves of bread and at the same time the word, in fact first he administered, sometimes for three days in a row, the Word and then he would be concerned also with the bread. Not from bread alone does the poor man live, but also from the hope and from every word that comes from the mouth of God. The poor have the sacrosanct right to hear the integral Gospel, not in a reduced or polemical edition; the Gospel that speaks of love to the poor, but not of hatred for the rich.

Joy in Heaven and Joy on Earth

We end on another tone. For Francis of Assisi, Christmas was not only the occasion to weep about Christ’s poverty; it was also the feast that had the power to make explode all the capacity of joy that was in his heart, and it was immense. At Christmas he literally did foolish things.

“On this day he wanted the poor and beggars to be satiated by the rich, and that the oxen and the donkeys receive a more abundant ration of food and hay more than usually. If I could speak to the emperor – he said – I would implore him to issue a general edict, so that  all those who do have the possibility, strew wheat and grain on the roads, so that on a day of such solemnity the birds, and particularly the sister skylarks, have it in abundance.”[12]

He would become like one of those children whose eyes are full of wonder before the Crib. During the Christmas function at Greccio, recounts his biographer, when he spoke the name “Bethlehem“ he would fill his mouth with sound and even more with tender affection, producing a sound like the bleat of a sheep. And every time he said “Babe of Bethlehem” or “Jesus,” he would lick his lips, almost as to relish and retain all the sweetness of those words.

There is a Christmas song that expresses to perfection Saint Francis’ sentiments before the Crib, and this does not astonish us if we think that it was written, words and music, by a Saint like him, Saint Alphonsus Mary Liguori. Listening to it in the Christmas season, let us be moved by its simple but essential message:

From starry skies descending,

Thou comest, glorious King,

A manger low Thy bed,

In winter's icy sting;

O my dearest Child most holy,

Shudd'ring, trembling in the cold!

Thou art the world's Creator,

Yet here no robe, no fire

For Thee, Divine Lord.

Dearest, fairest, sweetest Infant,

Dire this state of poverty.

The more I care for Thee,

Since Thou, o Love Divine,

Will'st now so poor to be.

Holy Father, Venerable Fathers, brothers and sisters, Happy Christmas!

[Translation by ZENIT]

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The first homily, Francis of Assisi and the Reform of the Church by the Way of Holiness: 

http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/father-cantalamessa-on-francis-of-assisi-s-method-for-church-reform

The second homily, Humility as Truth and Service in Francis of Assisi: 

http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/father-cantalamessa-on-francis-of-assisi-s-humility

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1 Celano, Vita Prima, 84-86 (Franciscan Sources, 468-470).

2 Ib. 30, (FF 467).

3 Celano, Vita Seconda, 151 (FF 788).

4 H. Thode, Franz von Assisi und die Anfange der Kunst des Renaissamce in Italien, Berlin 1885.

5 J. Guitton, quoted by R. Gil, Presence of the Poor in the Council, in “Proyeccion” 48, 1966, p. 30.

6 St. Leo the Great, Discourse 2 on the Ascension, 2 (PL 54, 398).

7 In AAS 54, 1962, p. 682.

8 Cf. The Jesus of Paul VI, published by V. Levi, Milan 1985, p. 61.

9 P. Damien Vorreux, Saint Francois d’Assise, Documents, Paris 1968, p. 36.

10 V. Mancuso, in La Repubblica, Friday, October 4, 2013.

11 Paul VI, Evangelica testificatio, 18 (Ench. Vatican 4, p. 651).

12 Celano, Vita Seconda, 151 (FF 787-788).