Today at the 10:00 service we will be blessing animals, beloved pets, digital photos, even, I’m sure, some beloved stuffed pets. We do this every year on a Sunday near October 4, which is the Feast of St. Francis, the anniversary of his death in 1226. Some years, we turn the entire service into a focus and reflection on St. Francis. Other years, like today, we insert the blessing of the animals into our regular Sunday Eucharistic celebration, using the readings appointed for the Sunday. That’s what we’re doing today but after I made that decision and began working more closely on today’s worship, I found my reflections returning again and again to the poverello, the little poor one, St. Francis.
Most of you know that Corrie and I went on an extended trip of Italy this past May. Among our destinations was Assisi, St. Francis’ home. I had never been there and it has long been high on my list of places to visit. It was an intense spiritual experience for me. Having studied St. Francis, having taught about St. Francis every time I taught courses in Medieval Christianity or Christian Spirituality, to walk the streets of his home town, to see the little church of San Damiano, where he had his vision of Christ, to visit the Portiuncula, where he first gathered followers, to see his tomb, all of this was deeply moving to me.
For us, St. Francis is appealing for all of the ways he went against conventional Christianity, his poverty, simplicity, his identification with the poor and the outcast like lepers. We love his childlike affection for creation, for the stories of him preaching to the birds, or taming the Wolf of Gubbio. That’s why of course we observe the Blessing of the Animals in this season, near his feast day. It is appropriate that we remember and honor our connection with all of creation, and especially with the pets who so often are important ways in which we show and experience love, and our relationships with them are profound and lasting.
Still, there’s a sense in all of this that we have watered down what is most important about Francis—his deep Christian faith, his powerful identification with Christ, and the extremity of some of his piety and actions. Just as he challenged religious convention of his day, so too did he offend norms of appropriate behavior and social convention.
The themes underlying St. Francis’ spirituality are themes that dominate today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians—humility, obedience, imitation of Christ. This letter is unique among Paul’s writings, because it’s the only one that reflects a positive relationship between Paul and the community with which he is corresponding.
In today’s reading, Paul seems to be focusing on ethical instruction but suddenly he shifts gear. We think the words in the center section of this reading are not Paul’s but rather come from an early Christian hymn. But even the reason he quotes the hymn isn’t clear, for the phrase that is translated, “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” might also be translated “let the same mind be in you that you have in Christ Jesus.” The distinction between was and have has to do whether Jesus Christ’s actions in the hymn are meant to serve as an example for the Philippians, or whether Christ’s actions make possible the unity and ethical behavior of the Philippians. We might put the difference as between Christ as example or as enabler.
Whatever the case, this hymn is a profound reflection on who Jesus Christ was and is. Its every phrase is pregnant with meaning, and open to interpretation. “who though he was in the form of God” Does this mean he was God, or he was in the “image of God” that is, human like us? He emptied himself, being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death.” In the hymn, those actions of Christ’s earthly life, humility, obedience, self-emptying, become the basis for God’s response: Therefore God has highly exalted him. Here the resurrection is meant, and the hymn concludes with statements about how human beings should respond to Christ. Every knee should bend, every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Some of this language may sound familiar to us from our own liturgy, but do we see a connection between ourselves and our ethical behavior, and our common life as the body of Christ, with our confession of Jesus Christ as Lord? If we do, I should think it is based in that word obedience, but Paul is driving at something deeper. What we do is not only a response to the commands of God, or to the teachings of Christ. What we do, and he has in mind specific things, especially our life together in community, what we do is a response to our confession of who we understand Jesus Christ to be. It is not just or not primarily that we confess Jesus Christ to be Lord. It is also the way that Jesus Christ is Lord. Those words, emptying, humbling, obeying characterize Christ’s actions in the world; they are who he was, and how he was.
For Paul, they are also who we ought to be and how we ought to be. Paul’s vision of Christian community is profound and alien to us. We are the products of centuries of historical change that has emphasized the values of individualism, freedom, and self-sufficiency. Paul rejects of all of that. For him, to live in Christ is to live with others in community. His favorite metaphor is the body, but here when he appeals to Christ, he is emphasizing that kind of behaviors that are necessary for realizing community. Few of us, if we are honest with ourselves, would agree that to be members of this parish, or indeed any congregation, requires that we empty ourselves, or humble ourselves.
To hear these words across the centuries is to be challenged again by a very different understanding of what human beings are and ought to be, and what it means to be a Christian. So what do we make of this? Is it enough to list the attributes Paul describes and urge one another to adopt them? Surely not!
One way of thinking about St. Francis is that he embodied what these ideas meant for his time—humility, obedience, self-emptying, and imitation of Christ. The question for us is what might they mean for us today? How can we, how might we, embody, humility, obedience, self-emptying, and the imitation of Christ? What might all that look like in our context, in our day?