Christians are different on death.
Much to the confusion of our world, we celebrate death; we speak positively about passing on.
Christians honour death-days. Tonight for example, we celebrate St. Francis’ departure to what we perceive as a better place, with a dead and risen Lord.
Because, for believers, dying is rising!
Death is, for disciples, the beginning of service, a movement toward relationship, and the manifestation of the most important fruit of all, love.
Over the past few months I have had some dark thoughts around dying. I have wondered: What if the Church changed? What if the People of God, universally, adopted the Franciscan ideal (which is nothing other than the gospel); would the Franciscan Orders and charism become irrelevant? Would we as a Franciscan Order, after 800 years, meet our own death?
I think, fundamentally, the answer is yes we would but in faith I feel secure in this vocation because I also doubt. I doubt the ability of the Church or the Order to achieve the ideal; I trust that St. Francis’ vision and the gospel will always be radical, hoped for, for us all to strive toward, rather than be satisfied in us. I hope, and that is why I can call myself a Christian, but like St. Thomas I doubt. We all know that change is coming in the Church, but some of us need to touch the mark of the nails, so to speak, before we can truly believe.
This week Pope Francis expressed his hope for the Church as she attempts reform and renewal, and oddly enough his hopes were based on the hopes of our Holy Seraphic Father Francis I (of Assisi).
On his namesake, the “bishop of Rome” states:
“St. Francis of Assisi is great because he is everything. He is a man who wants to do things, wants to build, he founded an Order and its rules, he is an itinerant and a missionary, a poet and a prophet, he is mystical. He found evil in himself and rooted it out. He loves nature, animals, the blade of grass on the lawn and the birds flying in the sky. But above all St. Francis loved people, children, old people, women. He is our most shining example of agape,” love.
St. Francis, in others words, exudes an ideal.
And the Pope continues:
"Francis wanted a mendicant Order and an itinerant one; Missionaries who wanted to meet, listen, talk, help, to spread faith and love. Especially love. And he dreamed of a poor Church that would take care of others, receive material aid and use it to support others, with no concern for itself. 800 years have passed since then and times have changed, but the ideal of a missionary, poor Church is still more than valid. This is still the Church that Jesus and his disciples preached about."
This ideal, in other words, persists. It will never go away. Christians, and especially Franciscans, must aspire to the poverty of Jesus Christ – an ideal we must hope to immolate.
The teachings of Jesus, that St. Francis put above all other “prescriptions”, remain the lifeblood of the People of God. Yet, it is only when dying to ourselves that we begin to understand our Lord’s counsels.
Not as individuals do we come to the truth (and beauty and goodness) but together, and only together are we truly free. It is only when we aspire beyond our own deadly wants that we begin to know the real needs of others and to do what Jesus says to do, to wash feet.
On his deathbed, on this very night many moons ago, St. Francis told his companions “I have done what is mine to do, may Christ teach you what is yours’.”
St. Francis’ life, and his particular vocation, is over. He died; now we must live as called. Christ, in like and purer manner, died and set us free, free to follow his lead, free to discover each other – to serve, to relate, and to love.
May we listen to Francis and follow our Lord’s example by dying to ourselves. May we rejoice in what death has accomplished, and do what is ours, in particular, to do. Above and beyond all else, may we love as we are loved.