Our Patron Saint
Our Patron Saint: Francis of Assisi
This 13th century Italian, who flourished in Medieval Italy, has become one of the most familiar and widely celebrated historical persons in the history of the Church. St. Francis is an “ecumenical” saint—he cuts across denominational lines. He is loved and appreciated by Anglicans everywhere. Countless people from different Christian traditions are quite happy to place a statue of St. Francis in their garden, for he has come to symbolize something beautiful. The secular world has great respect for him, and even though some of the saint’s worthy perspectives have become confused in the minds of some within our culture, his views are an impetus for lovers of nature to move toward an orthodox understanding of God’s world and our place within it. We should celebrate this instructive and amenable patron saint since his reputation and his teachings can be used to our benefit.
Francis of Assisi lived in a completely different context than the one in which we find ourselves. But there are a number of key emphases or motifs in the life of St. Francis that endure because they ring true as genuine expressions of the Faith and faithful witnesses to the call of Christ in the Gospel. Two key points in the witness of St. Francis are delineated below with an explanation as to how they are still relevant in our contemporary context. It should become clear that as faithful Anglicans we should celebrate and promote these ideas as we seek to proclaim the Gospel within our context and to our community.
St. Francis: Keeping the Manger and the Cross Together
It was in the year 1223 that the deacon St. Francis of Assisi set up the first Christmas crèche, in a cave near the mountain village of Greccio in Italy. He had visited Bethlehem and wanted to recreate the Nativity scene for the worshippers in Greccio and the surrounding community, too numerous to fit into the village’s small chapel. His first biographer, Bonaventure, tells the story in his Life of St. Francis (1274):
It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Greccio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, [St. Francis] determined to keep it with all possible solemnity. . . . Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.
St. Francis was deeply invested in the doctrine of the incarnation, the love of God coming down in deep humility into human poverty. One of the chief symbols of Christmas, used around the world and enjoyed by millions of Christians, was instituted by this man. It was a brilliant move on his part, and Christians ever since have relished using the crèche to enter more fully and richly into the mystery of the Incarnation.
St. Francis established his crèche near the altar where the Eucharist was celebrated on Christmas Eve. St. Francis, unlike too many shallow theologians today, understood the vital connection between Nativity and Crucifixion, between Incarnation and Atonement, between the Baby born and the Body broken. It is a well known fact that his initial call to service occurred while he contemplated the suffering of our Savior on the cross. St. Francis had a holistic understanding of Christ Incarnate, Christ Crucified. Only such a man could have prayed:
We adore You, O Lord Jesus Christ, in this church and all the churches of the world, and we bless You, because, by Your holy Cross You have redeemed the world.
St. Francis understood the deep and logical connection between Christ’s birth and Christ’s death, for he recognized that the Savior’s humiliation and death began in the feedbox amidst the sharp straw, and continued until the day He was fastened to the cruel cross for our salvation. This restored balance is deeply needed in today’s Church.
St. Francis: Clear-headed Thinking About Creation and its Redemption
St. Francis is known for his love of creation. Our generation loves nature, but two polarized extremes have developed. On the one hand we have seen extreme environmentalists develop their beliefs along religious lines. They speak of Mother Nature, and Gaia, the earth mother spirit who gives us life. They have tied themselves to trees to receive the wisdom of ancient Sequoias. They have spoken of the grand plan to rescue the earth as a salvation project. They have come to think of animals as superior to human beings. There is even a “documentary” that tries to imagine how much better life would have been without the appearance of humans on the earth. Clearly, nature lovers within our contemporary culture have committed the error St. Paul spoke of when he said that man sins when by loving the creature rather than the Creator Who is blessed forevermore (Ro. 1:25).
On the other hand, real damage has been done to our planet because of human greed and many Christians, while seeking to avoid the radical environmentalist approach, have yet to develop a robust and orthodox theology of environmentalism, of tending to our world in accordance with the mandate to take dominion and rule wisely as God commanded (Gen. 1:28).
Long before modern debates over the environment flared up, and adherents to radically opposed perspectives became polarized from each other, St. Francis held together in one seamless philosophy, an orthodox theology, and a profound love of the natural world. Consider his famous Canticle of All Creatures:
Most High, all-powerful, all-good Lord,
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor and all blessings.
To you alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your Name.
Praised be You my Lord with all Your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, Who is the day through whom You give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour,
Of You Most High, he bears the likeness.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,
In the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair.
Praised be You, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
And fair and stormy, all weather’s moods, by which You cherish all that You have made.
Praised be You my Lord through Sister Water,
So useful, humble, precious and pure.
Praised be You my Lord through Brother Fire,
Through whom You light the night and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.
Praised be You my Lord through our Sister, Mother Earth,
Who sustains and governs us, producing varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.
Praised be You my Lord through those who grant pardon for love of You and bear sickness and trial.
Blessed are those who endure in peace,
By You Most High, they will be crowned.
The Canticle expresses delight in all the creatures of the earth, and in the natural world, but it does so by giving ultimate praise to their Maker. God is praised through these things, just like a Psalm in the Bible. St. Francis enjoyed God by enjoying the natural world that God had made. He read the world as a sacrament of God’s presence (so for instance, the sun is a symbol of God). He addressed planetary bodies and natural entities as siblings. This fact is highly significant. He can call earth “mother” since, according to the Genesis account, man’s body was fashioned by God, when He pulled the physical body of Adam out of the earth as a baby is taken from its mother’s womb. But notice that St. Francis never calls nature mother. There is no “Mother Nature” in his song of praise to nature’s Maker. St. Francis’ deeply orthodox vision recognized that nature is not our mother, but our sister, for we have one Father, God our Maker. We are part of nature, and as image bearers of God we can stand aside from nature to observe it and enjoy it, but we must never worship it. Worship is reserved for the glorious One Who made all things by the artistry of His love.
St. Francis thus held creation and redemption together. In his passionate dedication to Christ Incarnate and Crucified, He saw the key to the mystery of all things. In Christ, God did not eradicate the world or treat nature dismissively. He entered the natural order fully and truly. And He suffered the pain of the cross to redeem it.
Anglicans may rejoice that in the classic Book of Common Prayer, a song, very similar to St. Francis’ Canticle is placed in the daily office of Morning Prayer, the Benedicite, omnia opera Domini. In this song, God is blessed for all his works, and man, acting as liturgist, calls upon natural entities to join him in worshipping the Creator. The Prayer Book understanding of nature is deeply Franciscan.
The Symbolism of Our Saint Francis Logo
Learn more about the iconic image of our St. Francis logo.