The Incarnation and St. Francis

by Bret Thoman, SFO

In anticipation of Christmas, let’s reflect on the Incarnation. Francis is associated with nature probably more than any other saint. Almost everyone who knows a little about him will know that he is the saint who spoke to animals, or on whose feast day household pets receive blessings, or whose statue we so often see in gardens. Those who enjoy outdoor hiking or camping might admire Francis’s affinity for nature. However, Francis’s relationship to nature and creation goes beyond birdbaths and nature walks. Francis’s view of creation was incarnational, even sacramental.

Francis’s admiration of creation began with the words from Genesis. “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth… God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good.” (Genesis 1: 1-31) Francis loved creation because God created it, and it was good. But his admiration goes beyond the Old Testament; as a Christian and he believed in the primacy of Christ – that all creation was formed through Christ – the Eternal Word. The Word existed before all creation, and all creation was made through Him. “All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be…” (John 1, 2-3) “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible.” (Colossians 1, 15-20) The Nicene Creed says, “Through him [the Word] all things were made…” Francis, therefore, saw the reflection of Christ within all creation.

Thus, Francis’s worldview of creation was profoundly incarnational. He had to love creation because that is where he saw God reflected. He very much believed in Christ’s Incarnation – that the second Person of the Trinity, the Word, the God-man, came down to Earth and redeemed it. So everywhere he looked, he saw Christ reflected.

The desire to recreate these historical events inspired Francis to re-enact the birth of Jesus in the first nativity scene in Greccio. Through this experience, one can enter into the place, witness the people – Mary, Joseph, shepherds, Magi, the animals, and the Christ-child himself. Later in history, Franciscans would initiate historical traditions into church life, such as processions, the stations of the cross, Passion plays, the crèche, and other re-enactments of biblical scenes.

Francis saw Christ especially in other human beings. As a matter of fact, he saw Christ especially in other human beings, since people, more than all of creation, were made in the image of God (Gen. 1, 27). Therefore, in the highest order of all created things, human beings were on top. Further, since Francis saw himself as a part of creation, he considered things his brother and sister. If we call God “Our Father”, we are declaring that everything around us, not just people, but animals and even inanimate objects, are fraternal. They are our brothers and sisters. This is most evident in Francis’s prayer/poem, “The Canticle of the Creatures’. In it he sings out praises to Brother Sun, Wind, and Fire, and Sister Moon, Water, Earth, and even Death.

But Francis did not limit his love of creation to beautiful things. Although Francis would certainly have marveled at a sunset, the seashore, or mountains, he also loved little worms and beasts. In the Fioretti the story is told how Francis went to the town of Gubbio and tamed a ferocious wolf that had been terrorizing the people. The story recounts that Francis treated the wolf with courtesy and dignity, calling him Brother, and he was ‘converted’. Here he dealt with the beast as he treated human ‘sinners’ – by showing them love and helping them to realize Christ within and that they are one of God’s creatures. He saved worms by picking them off the road and gently moving them to safety (Cel I, chap XXIX). Here one can surmise that Francis perceived the disfigured Christ – the Passion of Christ. He knew that Christ’s life was not limited to his glorification, and that he passed through horrendous suffering. Perhaps this is why he was so devoted to lepers – in them he saw Christ’s distorted and broken face on the cross. In Celano 1, chapter 28, Francis comes across a little lamb surrounded by goats while returning from the Holy Land. He compassionately takes the lamb from among the malevolent goats and brings it with him to Osimo. Celano describes how Francis identifies the lamb with Christ and reflects how Christ walked in a similar manner among the Pharisees and Chief Priests. Thus, we can see how Francis still saw Christ in the more unattractive parts of nature.

St. Francis’s understanding of creation influenced the theology of later friars. John Duns Scotus took Francis’s ideas on Incarnation and creation further saying that the Incarnation of Jesus was not an afterthought on the part of God as a response to man’s sin; but, rather, Scotus opined that even had Adam never sinned, the Father would still have sent His Son anyway. The pre-eminent theologian of the high Middle Ages was the Dominican Thomas Aquinas who taught that the primary reason for Christ’s coming was to redeem humans from sin. Scotus believed that the Incarnation had been planned from all eternity, before creation, before sin entered the world. The reason, Scotus believed, was that God is good and goodness naturally flows out of Him (like creation itself) and since all creation exists through Christ, it only follows that the Word would come in Person on Earth to be with and fulfill all of creation.

This theology stands in stark contrast to that of the Cathars (a heretical group that lived alongside Francis). They held to dualistic beliefs; i.e. they believed in two gods – a good god of the spirit, and a bad god of matter. Therefore, they saw in creation the rotten fruit of the evil god of matter. Thus, they rejected material things and embraced poverty. Francis, on the other hand, saw creation as good. It had to be good, since it was created by the one good God. Further, Francis saw Christ in all creation, since everything was created through the Son.

In conclusion, Francis is much more than the saint who preached to the birds. His views on creation were influenced by his intense religious experience. His relationship with God was not limited to the cloister, as he lived his spirituality in the open outdoors. Since most people today live indoors and appreciate nature when they can, i.e. through a hiking or camping trip, it is natural to project that on the life of Francis and the early friars. In reality they lived an opposite experience. Francis and the early friars lived in the open outdoors and ministered within the towns and cities. Their lives were spent outside in nature, where they found and worshiped God.
By Bret Thoman, SFO –

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