December 5, 2007

St. Francis, Creatures and Christmas

by Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M.




“In Bethlehem There Came a Child” by Rose Walton, artist,

Artists often depict St. Francis surrounded by animals, birds and flowers as if they all make up one happy family. This is not just a hyped-up picture of the saint created by sentimental nature-lovers. It captures something very true and profound about the saint. Francis' earliest biographers, who wrote during his lifetime, tell of his preaching to birds and his encounters with a variety of creatures, as well as his addressing them as “Sister Lark,” “Sister Cricket,” “Brother Rabbit,” and so forth.

It is, moreover, an accepted historical fact that St. Francis is the author of the Canticle of Brother Sun, sometimes known as the Canticle of the Creatures. What this song and his many interactions with animals tell us about St. Francis is that he did not perceive himself as isolated from other creatures. Obviously, he simply assumed that all creatures—not only humans—form one family of creation. Even when we pray, it’s good to invite the other creatures to praise God with us, just as Francis did in his canticle: “All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made—first of all, through my lord Brother Sun...through Sister Moon and Stars…through Brother Wind...and Sister Water…and Brother Fire…and Sister Earth, our mother.”

This familial sense of oneness with all creatures is closely linked with St. Francis’ love for the feast of Christmas and his understanding of the Incarnation. In Francis’ mind and heart, if God really entered the family of creation, this event should really revolutionize our thinking about the world. Not only did the Incarnation bestow a great value on humans, but it also blessed and enriched other creatures as well. The whole fabric of creation took on an elevated dignity and meaning.

Reenacting Bethlehem

This is why the feast of Christmas meant so much to Francis and why he wanted the whole of creation to be part of the celebration. St. Francis himself initiated the popular tradition of the Christmas crèche. The custom goes back to the year 1223, when Francis invited the townspeople of Greccio, Italy, to gather at a cave outside the village to reenact the first Christmas.

St. Francis asked the people to bring along an ox and an ass and sheep and real straw in a real manger. Francis wanted to have animals around the crib because he had a deep sense that these creatures belong there because they too were deeply affected by the birth of Christ and his saving love. By right, all creatures should participate in the celebration of Christmas.

Including creatures in the festivities

St. Francis’ biographers give us additional evidence that he strongly believed that all creatures should share in the Christmas blessing. These writers inform us that St. Francis wanted the emperor to ask all citizens to scatter grain along the roads on Christmas Day so that the birds and other animals would have plenty to eat. The beasts in the stables, too, should be given richer fare on the feast of Christmas and even the walls should be rubbed with food.

If St. Francis were alive today, I believe he would encourage us to include more and more creatures in our celebration of Christmas. If we have pets, he might suggest that we give Brother Dog or Sister Cat a special treat on Christmas Day—or at least that we toss a few more sunflower seeds on the bird feeder!

p.s. It’s still early enough to get copies of my book St. Francis in San Francisco for Christmas. See the ad to the right for details.

Friar Jim’s Inbox

Readers respond to Friar Jim’s “Catechism Quiz: What Is the Communion of Saints?”

Dear Friar Jim: “At the present time, some are still living as pilgrims on earth (ourselves). Others are in glory, contemplating in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is (heaven). Still others have died and are being purified (purgatory).” What happened to hell? Megan

Dear Megan: There is still a hell, but I was talking about the Communion of Saints and Mystical Body of Christ and all those who are saved. That’s the reason why there was no reference to hell. For more information, check my article on hell. Friar Jim

Dear Friar Jim: If Christ paid our sin debt in full by his blood on the cross, why is there such a thing as purgatory? Doesn’t the idea of purgatory mean Christ’s death was in vain? Where in the New Testament does it say we die and if we’re not pure enough we go there? Thank you for your attention to this. My priests couldn’t find it in the Bible and I was wondering where it was. Gerrie

Dear Gerrie: An article I wrote last year ( Part I | Part II ) provides a fuller explanation of purgatory, which is a very important aspect of our theology. Friar Jim

Dear Friar Jim: Are you saying that our dead loved ones are in purgatory until Jesus returns? It's hard for me to hold on to the fact that when I die no one will say prayers for my parents specifically anymore. My father has been dead for 10 years and my mother for five. Are they still in purgatory? Cindy

Dear Cindy: Don’t worry, really. God is in charge of all this. No one is in purgatory longer than need be. Millionaires do not have advantage over poor people because every Mass that is offered is offered for all souls, and each Mass has infinite value. God is loving and compassionate, infinitely so. Friar Jim

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