This final Sunday of the Season of Creation coincides with the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, but it’s no coincidence! People of all religions and none recognise Francis as an exemplary figure in the matter of respect and love for the created world. For Catholics, and for some other Christians, Francis might even be called a mystic of creation. One facet of the grace of his conversion to Christ as a young man was his awareness of how creation speaks to us of the Creator and of his love. He was able to perceive in every created thing the loving hand of Christ. Creation is its own catechism.
But Francis was not an idolater. He did not adore creation as if it were God himself, or some other independent god opposed to the Trinity. He would have considered certain forms of environmentalism of today to be blasphemous: consider, for example, views which believe the suppression of humanity to be a better option than the deterioration of the environment. Which is not to say that, if we humans don’t get our act together, our destruction of the environment won’t lead to human extinction. But the environment is for man and subject to man under God, not vice-versa. As Francis once exclaimed: “Every creature proclaims ‘God made me for your sake, O man’.”
Francis understood profoundly that creation was not a work which the Creator accomplished and then promptly left behind to retire to his heaven to watch over it from a distance. We are at times inclined to think that God is “up there” somewhere, far away from the world and even from the universe. But he’s not. He is in his creation without actually being his creation, as a father is among his family without being his family; he contains his creation hence his creation is in him.
In terms of space, heaven is not a faraway place but is like a fourth dimension of the space we are already in. It is present to and within the other three dimensions of length, width and depth, but without being contained by or reduced to them. In the same way, these are present to and within heaven without actually being heaven. Again, in terms of time, heaven is neither past, present nor future, but is a fourth dimension called eternity. Eternity is in the past, present and future as they are in it, but without either being identified with the other. Heaven transcends time and space, but in a way that makes it present in and to them. So, all space and time and everything in them involve God, concern him. He desires to bring all time to eternity and all space to heaven.
This means that God is more present to the world and especially to us human beings than we are to ourselves. Saint Augustine gave God the name of the One who is “more intimate to me than I am to myself”. Saint Paul exclaimed that faith in Christ was his “real life”, that “no longer he himself, but Christ lived in him.” Saint Irenaeus wrote that “Christ is the I of my I”, such that I cannot say I am without at the same time Christ saying I am in and with me. This profound union between Christ and I does not confuse or blot out our separate identities. On the contrary, I only can fully exist as myself in union with Him. There is also a strain of Celtic spirituality which sees creation as being like the Scriptures: the God who is the author of the bible is also the author of creation. Hence creation, like Scripture, reveals to us in its own way the reality of God’s majesty, splendour and glory. The bible itself contains many passages which describe creation as one of God’s ways of opening the human heart and mind to God. Its power, beauty and majesty are but faint echoes of the power, beauty and majesty of God.
So, Francis stands in a long and illustrious tradition when his Canticle of the Sun, written not long before he died, invites us to a loving and poetic openness to the beauty and holiness of creation. But, with Francis too, this love is always an extension, an emanation, of his love for Jesus Christ. The Jesus who touched Francis deeply at his conversion with the power of his love is the crucified Jesus and the creator Jesus. Francis could do no other than love him in return on the Cross and in Creation.
Christ’s love for anyone aims at union and communion. Christ is already one with us in a certain way by the fact of having created us and of conserving us in existence. But he wants that objective, matter-of-fact union to become a union which the human person subjectively embraces with all his mind and all his heart and all his soul and all his strength. He wants us not just to recognise his presence as a naked fact, but to throw ourselves into his presence in an act of unconditional love, to accept Christ’s invitation to transform presence into covenant, like a marriage bond. It is this for which we were created in the first place. Had original sin never been, then humanity would already long ago have been steeped in the eternal love and divinity of the Son of God, and the rest of creation would have been singing Francis’ Canticle of the Sun in some other more sublime form aeons ago.
Creation, you might say, looks to us to have the sense to turn to Christ for the healing, life and lasting freedom that get us out of sin. In his wisdom the Creator has tied the health of the soil to the spiritual health of man and woman taken from it. To make it possible for us to turn to Christ, he himself became that soil. He became dust and ashes when he became man. By doing that, he was revealing that the soil, the dust and the ashes and the rest of the created universe already belonged to him, were already in his hands. He formed himself as man from the same clay as he had formed Adam.
It is instructive that St. Francis would be moved to be among the first to depict Jesus becoming man, God becoming earth, by means of the crib. Francis’ own past sins of the flesh were cleansed by his devotion to the incarnate humility of Jesus. He also saw this incarnate humility as extended in the holy Eucharist. Once when confronted with a priest who was living in concubinage, and asked what should be done with the offender, Francis replied, “Whether you are a sinner I do not know, but what I do know is that your hands can touch the Word of God”; he then knelt and kissed the priest’s hands.
Another key to Francis’ spirituality was his devotion to the Cross. If the love and humility of Christ for our sakes are seen in the crib, their consummation is seen on the Cross. When Francis first heard Jesus speak to him and told him to “go and rebuild my Church which is in ruins”, the voice spoke from the Cross. Francis received his mission from the crucified Christ. Two years before he himself died, Francis received a vision in prayer on the feast of the triumph of the holy Cross, 14th September, and as a result was given the miracle of the stigmata. It’s as if Jesus was again saying to him from the Cross, you have lived and loved like me in humility and obedience of heart, and I now complete your conformation to me in your very flesh. It’s as if the words of St. Paul were now fulfilled in Francis: “with Christ, I hang upon the Cross; no longer do I live, but Christ lives in me.” Brother Leo, who wrote down the events surrounding Francis’ death, said that when he died, Francis looked like someone who had been taken down from the Cross.
With the stigmata, Francis’ conversion to Christ became total union and communion, with all his heart, and soul and strength and, yes, with his very flesh. The story is told of someone who had a vision of Christ leading a long procession of saints. They all tried to fit their feet into Christ’s footsteps, but none of them could do it, except Francis. He has been called a second Christ, another Christ.
The stigmata of St. Francis direct our eyes to the mystery of the Cross and of the Crucified. All power of grace of whatever kind and measure; all conversion of sinners and healing of humanity; all forms of true love and of genuine truth: they all pour from the stigmata of Jesus. But the reconciling and healing power of the Cross also extends to creation itself. St. Paul explains it powerfully in these words: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” And why are all things on earth and in heaven reconciled by the Crucified Christ? Paul gives us the answer: because “All things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
Francis understood and loved this with his deepest soul because his union with Christ crucified was complete. Harmony and order in creation merely reflect and share in the harmony and order of the Creator. So, if that harmony and order are rendered dissonant and disordered by the sinful actions of humanity, the Creator himself is called into cause and only the Creator is capable of restoring them. And Christ did not do so by some cold diktat from on high, but by emerging visibly, humbly, like a tiny blade of grass, into creation as man from his invisible divine status. He carried in his body the entire disorder and brokenness of the created world and of the human spirit. By obedient surrender in a death which was more powerful than the act of creation itself, and therefore was invested with a love even greater than the love of God in the original creation, he restored harmony and order.
We might look at the situation of the world today and remark cynically that there is no sign of that harmony and order. It is true that sin abounds today and we don’t need to be told of the problems of the ecosystem and environment. So, where is the victory of Christ?
The victory of Christ is definitive and irrevocable. That’s for sure. But its full revelation will only come at the end of history. Just as a baptised person carries within them the pledge of eternal life, but will still die so as to be raised in the flesh at the end of time, so the earth itself has been redeemed from certain implosion and destruction but will still come to an end so that the new heavens and the new earth will be revealed. Had Christ’s victory asserted itself fully and openly at the time of the Resurrection, then the world would have ended at that point.
But God’s plan was not that. Instead, it was to give the generations that would come after Christ the opportunity in grace to sow the seeds of the Kingdom in the fields of history. The victory of Christ is manifest in mystery, in humility, in a certain hiddenness, in the Church: in divine worship and the sacraments, in the scriptures, in the witness of life and the love of God and neighbour. The wheat is being planted generously in the world while the Lord allows it to grow with the weeds until harvest time. The weeds at times seem more abundant than the wheat, but that’s because the weeds like to be seen. It will be at harvest time when all the fruits of Christ’s victory in the hearts and souls of those who have believed, loved and hoped for his coming will be revealed in all their glory. It will also be then that the weeds of history will be rooted out and burnt.
This is why our patient daily commitment to the demands of our faith in worship and in life are so important. They allow Christ’s victory to be sown in little and big ways in the fields of our time and place. Our Christian love and worship are the means by which that fourth dimension, the kingdom of heaven, roots itself in our time and place, in our past, present and future and in the length, breadth and depth of our lives. That love, if we are to imitate Francis, needs to be extended to mother earth and sister death, sister water and brother sun, not just out of civic duty but out of love for the Crucified Lord, who became dust and ashes for our sake and who rose in those dust and ashes now transfigured in glory.
St. Francis surrendered his worldliness to Jesus and embraced humility and poverty. His stigmata were a testimony to the depth of his love for the Body of Christ, in the crib, in the Eucharist and on the Cross. It is from Francis that we receive the prayer: “We adore you, Lord Jesus Christ, here and in all your churches throughout the world, and we bless you, for by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.” As this Season of Creation concludes for this year on Francis’ feast day, a new resolve to seek closer union and communion with Jesus will deliver the richest harvest. More than anything else we might be able to do for the earth and the environment, though not shirking our duty to do what we can, this closer union with Christ is what will bring healing to the world.
I invite you to pray with me:
that no longer I but You may live in me;
that my true life may be my faith in You,
who have loved me and given Yourself for me;
that You may be the I of my I,
more intimate to me than I am to myself.
Grant me the will to desire to love You
with all my heart, soul, mind, strength and body.
Bestow upon me the love of Lady Poverty and true humility of heart.
Let Your love replace my sin;
let Your wounds heal my infirmities.
Let Your friend and brother Francis pray for me
that I may be only Yours on earth and in heaven,
in time and in eternity. Amen.