Sunday, February 26, 2017

Providence and Dependence

St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)

(8th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on February 25, 2017 at St. Eugene Church in Chepachet, R.I. & February 26, 2017 at St. Peter's Church in Warwick R.I.  See Isaiah 49:14-15 and Matthew 6:24-34)

Our readings for this weekend are focused primarily on God’s providence.  What does it mean to say that God will always provide for us?  How is it that God cares for all our needs?  Christ, in the Gospel of St. Matthew, juxtaposes this providence with worry and concern.  He says:

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?
—Matthew 6:25

It is probably safe to say that none of us here today are concerned about those specific things.  We all know where our next meal will come from, and we are all fortunate enough to have clothes to wear.  Not everyone does, so we thank God for what we have received.  But it is also entirely possible that there are other things we worry about.  We wonder what our future will be like, if God will be able to provide for us, and for those we love, in the days ahead.  We all want to be happy, to live a good life and have the relationships and experiences that will bring true contentment.  Will God be able to provide those things?

In our darkest moments, perhaps, we may also ask the most difficult of questions: Where exactly is God in all this?  Is God even in my life at all?  Has God left me all alone?

If you have ever asked those questions before, or maybe are even asking them now, then you are in good company.  Those are the questions that the people of Israel are asking in the first reading, from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.  They have returned home from having been in exile for decades; taken away from their land, from the Temple, from all that was dear to them, their very way of life.  Where was God when all these things happened?  Perhaps in a moment of desperation, daughter Zion express her anxiety and concern as she struggles to make a new beginning:

"The LORD has forsaken me; my LORD has forgotten me."
—Isaiah 49:14

God’s response is as gentle as it is powerful.  He does not rebuke Israel, or remind them that they were in exile because they had forgotten Him!  He does not remind them of all the countless times He has cared for them, with love beyond all telling.  Instead, with a present love and an everlasting promise, He replies:

Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb?  Even should she forget, I will never forget you.
—Isaiah 49:15

This is providence.  This is God’s care and provision, extended to us in love.  Jesus, in the Gospel this weekend, gives us the key to grasping that promise and holding fast to it.  He instructs us:

Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.
—Matthew 6:33

When we seek first God’s kingdom, eternal life, our relationship with Him here in this world and in the world to come, then our lives are ordered to receive the fullness of what God longs to give us.  Our hearts must be set on Him alone, the God who is our very life, and then we begin to discover, in our dependence upon Him, all that we really and truly need.  

The great Christian author, C.S. Lewis, has a beautiful expression that captures this Gospel passage well.  He says that, if you look at history, the men and women that did the most for this world were the men and women that thought mostly of the world to comeAim at heaven, he said, and you will get earth thrown in with it.  Aim at earth only, and you will get neither.

The ones, of course, that teach us this so very well are the saints.  The saints are the ones who accomplished the most for this world by focusing mostly on the world to come.  They sought first, and vigorously, the Kingdom of God, and they were—of all people—truly happy and fruitful.

One of the most beloved saints in the Catholic Church, and a saint revered in circles well outside the Catholic faith, is St. Francis of Assisi.  Everyone loves St. Francis!  And while most people are familiar with Francis’ humility and profound love for the natural world, many would be surprised by what his biographers describe as "the young man's waywardness... of which, later on, he was so bitterly to reproach himself with having 'lived in sin'" (Omer Englebert, St. Francis of Assisi: A Biography).  One of the earliest accounts of Francis’ life mentions that he “wasted his life up to his twenty-fifth year, surpassing his comrades in foolishness, and drawing them with him into vanity and evil” (Thomas of Celano). Francis was the son of a clothing merchant, Pietro Bernadone, a man of no small means.  Francis spent a lot of money on himself, eating and drinking, and even more money on the people around him (Francis was benevolent and generous even in his selfishness!).  But then, slowly, everything in his life began to change.

One of the first setbacks that Francis encountered came when he was captured and imprisoned in a battle with a nearby city.  The soldier’s life was not for him.  After that period in his life, he also endured a long illness that left him bedridden for weeks at a time.  He was completely dependent upon those around him.  Little by little, the light of God continued to break through into Francis’ life, and he became more and more open to the needs of those around him.  At one point, he was moved to generously give away large amounts of his father’s goods.  That brought things to a head with Pietro Bernadone.  The angry father demanded that Francis restore everything he had given away.  Appealing first to the local authorities, the case was eventually brought before the bishop, and there marked a turning point in Francis’ life.

Coming before his father, in a public square in Assisi, Francis brought everything he had taken from his father and laid it before him.  Then he took off his own clothes and gave them to Pietro Bernadone, as well.  Standing naked before all gathered in that place, he told him with kindness that he could have his name back, as well.  From now on he belonged to “Our Father who art in heaven.”  

Catholic author G.K. Chesterton, in his biography on St. Francis, points to humiliating moments like this and attributes them to the transformation of that great saint.  He explains that, when we are humiliated, our lives get turned upside down.  We have all had experiences like that before.  Our lives get turned upside down, there is an embarrassing period, perhaps, and then we “right ourselves up” again and move on.  We gain, hopefully, some new insight and it helps us to live better and with more humility.  But with Francis, Chesterton indicates, he was humiliated, and he humbled himself, so intensely and so frequently that he stayed that way!  Can you imagine, St. Francis of Assisi standing on his head!  Chesterton goes on:

“If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasize the idea of dependence… He would be thankful to God for not dropping the whole cosmos like a vast crystal to be shattered into falling stars.”

St. Francis saw the entire world, everything and everyone around him, as being totally dependent upon God.  He was completely free to love God and those around him, to Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33).” He sought nothing else, desired nothing else, and for that reason he possessed all things in Christ.  As Chesterton explains:

Perhaps St. Peter saw the world so, when he was crucified head downwards… men have said “Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.”  It was in a wholly happy and enthusiastic sense that St. Francis said, “Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.” It was by this deliberate idea of starting from zero…that he did come to enjoy even earthly things as few people have enjoyed them. 

St. Francis of Assisi was totally dependent upon God, and for that reason he possessed everything that was necessary to make him completely happy and joyful in the Lord.  Do we?

How is God inviting us, this week, to stand on our heads and recognize that everything in this world is completely dependent upon God?  How is God calling us to see that our lives, our families, our prayer, our future, and everything around us, completely depends upon the one who loves us and died for our salvation?  

This week we ask for the grace to “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33),”  to aim at heaven, and to have earth thrown in with it.