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Forgiveness: a Franciscan reflection

FORGIVENESS: A FRANCISCAN REFLECTION
By Evan Pederick tssf
A talk given to members of the Third Order, Society of St Francis
Hobart April 2022; evanpederick@gmail.com
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I decided to speak this afternoon about forgiveness when I noticed that the Gospel we will hear tomorrow, the third Sunday of Easter, teaches us about the connection between forgiveness and the way of resurrection. I want to start with this, Peter’s conversation with the risen Christ over breakfast on the shore of Lake Galilee, then develop some themes on forgiveness that run through the New Testament, before exploring Franciscan teaching on forgiveness through the stories told of the life of St Francis, his own teachings and finally the more systematic Franciscan reflection on forgiveness offered by St Bonaventure. As those who know my background will realise these reflections are deeply personal to me, and so I offer them as one who has been forgiven much but who has much still to learn about the way of forgiveness.

In the Fourth Gospel Jesus appears three times to his disciples following his conversation with Mary of Magdala in the garden of the new tomb on the morning of the first day. That same evening he appears to all the disciples apart from Thomas who have locked themselves away out of fear. The first thing Jesus says to his startled disciples is “Peace be with you”, in fact he says it twice in this short passage. It’s a standard greeting – but the Greek word eirene is also the equivalent of shalom in Hebrew, God’s original blessing and intention for creation. It is also – and this is worth remembering when we offer one another the sign of peace in church on Sundays – a blessing of forgiveness and reconciliation. So Jesus blesses them with shalom, breathing on them in a clear echo of the Genesis account of the first day of creation, and commissioning them for ministry: “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any they are retained”. Jesus is here inaugurating the Church as a community defined by the practice of forgiveness and love. The following week he appears to the disciples – with Thomas – and again pronounces the benediction of peace, blessing those who will come to believe even though they have not seen for themselves. The Church is now commissioned to be an agent of resurrection, to bring others to faith through its own ministry of forgiving love and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The third resurrection appearance according to the Fourth Gospel is Jesus’ grilling of Peter over breakfast. Peter is carrying a burden of guilt so obvious that the Gospel writer doesn’t even bother to remind us of it: for each one of Peter’s increasingly desperate and self-serving denials in the courtyard of the High Priest Jesus asks him: “do you love me”? And for each one of Peter’s sorrowful replies Jesus instructs: “feed my sheep”. “Feed my lambs” (John 21.1-19). The primary purpose is not so much to make Peter squirm – although he does, and the unspoken fact of Peter’s load of guilt makes this uncomfortable reading for any of us who also recollect at this point our own failures of love and loyalty – but to confer forgiveness and with it a task. Jesus’ commissioning of Peter, and his prophecy of where in human terms Peter’s faithfulness will take him, underscore the point that while the free gift of God’s forgiveness has no strings attached our choice to receive it sets a new direction for our lives.

It’s the same point that Jesus makes in relation to the sinful woman who washes his feet in Luke 7.47: “she has been forgiven much: therefore she loves much”. Notice which way around it is? The divine initiative comes before our response is even possible. Jesus is pointing out that forgiveness reorients us to become the women and men God created us to be. In Luke’s most famous story about forgiveness, the story of the generous father of two sons – one profligate but broken and repentant, the other outwardly obedient but self-righteous and judgemental – the message is that divine forgiveness knows no limits but we need to be ready to accept it (15.11ff). For the profligate who knows his need of mercy, his father’s forgiveness is transforming and liberating – for the respectable son there seems to be a long way yet to go. In our Easter story, where Peter is stuck in his guilt and unforgiveness of himself, Jesus’ forgiveness and commissioning leads him from the death of self-loathing to new life. Where unforgiveness forecloses and kills, forgiveness opens us to new life and resurrection.

Jesus is big on forgiveness. In both Matthew and Luke’s versions of the Our Father Jesus connects our own forgiveness of others with God’s forgiveness of us. Matthew’s Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who hurt us (5.44). Luke goes even further: “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you” (6.27). Well, but which comes first, you might ask – do we learn to forgive the difficult and unlovely because of our knowledge of how much we ourselves have been forgiven? Or are we somehow disconnected from God’s unlimited and unconditional forgiveness if we ourselves are unable to forgive others? What if forgiveness is so much a part of God that it surrounds us like the air we breathe – except our own unforgiveness shuts us in and keeps us from drawing breath? Others may point out that just saying the words, “I forgive you – or her or him – or even myself” doesn’t necessarily make it true, that maybe all we can do when the hurt has been too deep is just commit ourselves to wanting to forgive – that forgiveness needs to grow, it can’t be forced. And all of these observations are true, I believe. Forgiveness, like resurrection, is a path that leads to new and transformed life. But it’s not an easy path.

The most shocking example of forgiveness is Jesus’ own prayer on the cross which Luke tells us (23.34) he prays as his executioners hammer in the nails: “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing”. That seems to set the bar too high for us – many good Christians try to avoid it by saying, ‘oh, this is not Jesus forgiving his executioners personally, he is leaving it up to God’. But in the words uttered on the cross you and I are privileged to listen in on the intimacy of love that is the triune life of God. In his prayer on the cross Jesus is entering fully into the heart of forgiving love that is God – there is no separation between his own will and the will of the one he calls Abba. Neither, according to Luke, is this extreme of forgiveness even something that might be possible for God but surely could not be expected of us. In the second part of Luke’s Gospel – the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus’ shocking act of forgiveness is echoed on the lips of the first, exemplary Christian martyr, Stephen: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (7.60).

In relation to the stoning of Stephen, Luke shows us both a victim and a perpetrator, the young Saul who while not actually casting stones is a willing part of the lynch-mob and takes care of the attackers’ coats. Saul goes on to lead the violent persecution of the early Church: raiding the houses of believers, hauling believers off to prison and “breathing threats and murder” (Acts 8.1-3; 9.1, also Gal 1.13). New Testament scholars note the discrepancy between the irenic account in Acts and the defensive tone of Paul’s own letters that suggests his later ministry was not universally accepted. Certainly there seems to have been an ongoing tension between Paul and the Jerusalem apostles with whom he had no formal contact for 14 years following his conversion, as well as Peter whom he later accuses of hypocrisy.

Forgiveness transforms and gives new life, but the scars of sin remain. How could they not, when the risen Christ still bears the wounds of crucifixion? Paul works out his theology personally, and his vulnerability is on display in his letters. He acknowledges to the Galatians he had come to them “because of a physical infirmity” (4.13) and in 2 Corinthians writes of his ongoing struggle with a “thorn in the flesh” (12.7). These statements have been a thorny problem for centuries of New Testament scholars! They seem to be referring to the same thing, and the word translated in the NRSV as ‘infirmity’ (Gk astheneia) also appears a little later in the passage from 2 Corinthians. The Greek word sarx underlying ‘physical’ and ‘flesh’ in these two verses can mean physical in the modern sense (ie. bodily) but also carries the more general meaning of the mortal human state with its mixed needs and desires. On its own the Galatians passage could perhaps be read as Paul admitting ‘I came to you as a flawed human being’ but the 2 Corinthians passage suggests something deeper and more specific – at a human level Paul experiences himself as pierced or even ‘pinned down’. We don’t know the nature of Paul’s burden but perhaps he is referring to his own corrosive self-knowledge as a violent persecutor of the Church. Today we would identify this as ‘moral injury’.

Paul is certainly aware of his own unworthiness: referring to himself in 1 Corinthians shockingly as an abortion – the NRSV supplies the polite circumlocution lacking in the Greek – “as one untimely born …. unfit to be called an apostle” (1 Cor 15.9). In his magisterial volume on Paul, James Dunn comments in passing that Paul ‘for some reason not altogether clear to us’ avoids in his letters any direct discussion of the topic of forgiveness. Perhaps as Dunn suggests Paul simply prefers to emphasise not what he has turned away from but what he is called to. But Paul’s stunning theological conclusion is that his weakness is important because it reveals the sufficiency of God’s grace: “for power is made perfect in weakness … when I am weak, then I am strong” (2. Cor 12.9-10).

One of the dangers of thinking about our own practice of forgiveness is that we slip too easily into assuming it is about us forgiving others. This is one of the reasons the Church insists on the act of confession every Sunday before we can take together the bread and wine of Jesus’ risen life. And we have much to repent of, together. As a Church, for example, we too easily pass over our corporate sins of child sex abuse, or our historic role in the dispossession of Aboriginal Australians. Or our rejection of the ministry of women, or our tacit exclusion or lack of welcome of gay and lesbian Christians. As citizens of a wealthy country that imposes cruel policies on asylum seekers, that condemns unemployed Australians to live on a benefit calculated to be inadequate and that fails to address the social sin of homelessness – we are complicit through our silence and our failure to protest.

And this is all before we even lift the corner of the veil and peer into the murk of our own personal moral conduct. What do you need forgiveness for? Or to put it another way, what is the benchmark of conduct that does impress Jesus? The obvious answer is in the uncomfortable little parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 (v.31ff). Sheila, Matthew and Dennis Linn in their marvellous little book, Good Goats tell of a group of nuns studying this passage. “Well?”, the study group leader asked, “put up your hands. Which of you have ever given food to someone who was hungry? Or clothing to someone who was cold? Or visited someone in prison or in hospital?” Slowly, the hands all went up. “Congratulations!”, she beamed. “You’re all sheep!” But then: “well, but which of you have ever walked past a beggar in the street and not given them anything? Or not helped out at the soup kitchen when you could have? Or which of you have ever not visited that person in prison or hospital when really you could have? Even once?”. And the hands came slowly back up. “That’s not so good is it? You’re all goats”.

So, what’s Jesus going to make of us? Let’s face it, we’re all sheepish goats. Good thing the judge in this story is big on forgiveness!

We Franciscans often shake our heads at St Francis who frankly does seem just a bit too radical, too literal in his interpretation of poverty and discipleship. We love him, and his recognition that at the heart of everything is Christ, and his understanding that we are brothers and sisters with everything in creation because we all come from the same heavenly Father. But he does seem a bit extreme sometimes, doesn’t he?

In relation to forgiveness, Francis typically wants to put the fox in charge of the hen-house. There are a couple of stories which I’m taking from the 13th century work, The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, by Br Ugolino. And the first story is the rather famous one about the wolf of Gubbio – a wolf who, being rather elderly, had started preying on the livestock and even the people themselves, of the little Italian village of Gubbio. Legend has it that Francis, ignoring their concern for his safety, went out to remonstrate with the wolf. It crept up to him and put out its paw as if asking for forgiveness. Addressing the wolf as Frate Lupo (Brother Wolf), Francis told the animal that its behaviour was wicked and must stop. But, he said, I know that you are only doing it because you are hungry, and a wolf must eat. So he led the wolf back into the village and made a deal. The wolf would stop eating livestock and villagers, and in return the villagers would feed it every day, enough for its needs. Thereafter wolf and villagers lived in peace for about two years until the wolf died of old age. According to a recent biographer, in 1872 the skeleton of a large wolf was in fact dug up in Gubbio outside the chapel of San Francesco della Pace.

Leaving aside the (possible) historicity of the legend, the story is also directed at persons of a ‘wolfish’ nature who nevertheless may also be persons in need. Also in the Flowers we find another suspiciously similar story. In this one Francis visits a Franciscan hermitage that is being harassed by robbers living in the forest who have been terrorising visitors and coming to the hermitage demanding food. On learning that the robbers had been sent away from their latest raid empty-handed, Francis demanded that the guardian of the hermitage, Br Angelo, go after the robbers with food and wine and ask their forgiveness for his hardness of heart. After eating of the bread of charity, so the story goes, and witnessing the repentance of Br Angelo, the robbers sought out St Francis who admitted them forthwith to the Order.
This story is also recounted by the 19th century Franciscan friar, Fr Pamfilo da Magliano, who places it directly after the story of the wolf of Gubbio and significantly also gives to the robber threatening the hermitage the name of ‘Lupo’. According to da Magliano it is Francis who tames the human Frate Lupo with ‘a few gentle words, such as had perhaps never been addressed to him since he lay in his mother’s arms’. The point which da Magliano’s creative editing clarifies is that even wolfish behaviour may stem from deep human needs and that perpetrators too may be victims. Forgiveness must come with concern for the boundaries and practical needs of both parties.

It is in the Admonitions of St. Francis that we see the saint’s practical and pastoral yet most challenging teaching. The Admonitions also relieve us of any idea that the early Franciscan community was peaceful and perfect! In many of these short teachings Francis directly addresses the challenges of forgiveness, with its related themes of humility and peace: for example in his teaching on self-control he cautions friars against blaming others for their own sin – these days we would call that projection, when we react with offence at others who seem to be acting out what we deny in ourselves. Before we cast blame on others we always need to examine and ask forgiveness for ourselves. In the admonition against anger Francis points out that our anger at other people almost always covers our own sinfulness! Avoid sin, Francis teaches, by investigating what makes you angry. In his discussion of this teaching, John Talbot acknowledges the place for righteous anger but points out (from ps. 4) that it too must come from a heart of stillness. Control of our emotions is never easy but it is specifically forgiveness that cures anger. Forgiveness sets both us and those around us free from sin. By contrast, judgement sets like cement, locking us up in anger and not allowing others the possibility of change.

In his admonition on correction, Francis instructs his friars to bear correction from others as patiently as if it was from themselves, even if it is for something they didn’t do! Friars should be always willing to be corrected without making excuses. In our self-entitled age this is so much harder than it looks! And as for cheerfully accepting undeserved blame – but the point is that the spirit of true forgiveness is not about getting the recognition we deserve or credit for doing well, but about real humility which as men and women created out of dust is the only right attitude for disciples who want to grow in love. The word humility, incidentally, comes from the same root as humus, good compost-y soil. It’s not a way of saying we are worthless, but points us to an eco-spirituality of knowing ourselves not as self-sufficient individuals but as part of the more-than-human ecology of creation.

By the time of St. Francis’ death in 1226, the Order he founded had begun to tear itself apart. With thousands of friars across Europe, the Order had bogged down in a mess of administrative problems including institutional needs for finance, education and formation. Even worse, Francis’s own legacy and rule of life was bitterly contested. The so-called “spirituals” insisted on an ever-stricter interpretation of Francis’ rule of poverty, and inspired by the sensationalist 12th century apocalyptic vision of Joachim of Fiore proclaimed Francis as the angelic harbinger of a great cosmic conflict, setting aside both Old and New Testaments and ushering in the end of time. The seventh Minister-General, the brilliant and pious St. Bonaventure inherited in 1257 a sadly divided Order riven by mutual excommunications and condemnations.

Factionalism and loss of unity in a community of faith is nothing less than a turning away from resurrection. If we are no longer seeking unity we are no longer, strictly speaking, the Church. This is also a sad reality for us today. Bonaventure would prove himself an able administrator and peacemaker, establishing a narrative about Francis that was able to unite the warring factions as the Order continued to grow apart from the radical vision of its itinerant founders. I have previously suggested that his major work of spiritual theology, the Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, written in the first two years of Bonaventure’s installation as Minister-General, was a major step in crafting a unifying institutional spirituality suitable for a no-longer itinerant and marginalised community. A close reading of the text also reveals that it is constructed as a via pacis, or handbook of practical reconciliation. In this work Bonaventure invites his reader to inwardly retrace the steps of Francis and to be re-formed in the image of Francis as a person of peace, prayer and contemplation oriented to the image of Christ crucified. Bonaventure’s interpretation of Francis in the Itinerarium develops a theology of peace culminating in the penultimate event of Francis’ life, namely the reception of the stigmata. Bonaventure scholar Jay Hammond points out that the spiritual exercises of the Itinerarium are constructed so as to guide the contemplative friar through and beyond both outer and inner landscapes through the reconciliation of opposites led by the persona of Francis himself. In doing so, Bonaventure sympathetically reframes and incorporates the apocalyptic theology of the “spirituals” into his interpretation of Francis and particularly the meaning of the stigmata. Here the way of reconciliation is practically conceived as that of prayer, and in particular the reorientation of the images of our own minds into a focus on the ultimately unifying image of the crucified Christ. Bonaventure understands that practical reconciliation in the community of faith can never come about through the winning of arguments, or by decree, but only by fixing our gaze together on the one who in his death and resurrection embraces and collapses all our partial truths and contradictions.

Bonaventure’s formal theology of forgiveness is helpfully teased out from a variety of sources by Theodore Koehler. Bonaventure’s primary theological methodology is the metaphysic of exemplarity – meaning that he builds on the Christian neo-Platonism of St Augustine – and this leads him to see Christ as the Exemplar and Image of divine Love, the cosmic centre and coincidentia oppositorum or paradoxical union of the opposites of eternity and creation. Bonaventure begins the historical Franciscan theological emphasis on the primacy of Christ, which is to say that the Incarnation of divine love is the reason for and the ground and culmination of creation itself. As Richard Rohr expresses it, ‘everything in creation is an example, manifestation and illustration of God in space and time’. What this means is that the divine intention for the whole of creation is to be gathered together into Christ in the triunity of divine love.

As creatures made in the image of the Exemplar of divine love our human vocation is to imitate Christ. In relation to mercy and forgiveness Bonaventure discerns three movements which in God’s triune life are indistinguishable (but in our case need a little extra work). Firstly is the distinction between mercy (misericordia) and justice (justitia). While divine justice is conceived by Bonaventure as the ‘proper application of divine goodness’, mercy is the love and compassion that arises viscerally (per viscera misericodiae Dei nostri) – through the divine bowels, or as Bonaventure more delicately interprets it, the womb of God. In other words mercy arises when we are affected by the wretchedness of another and respond out of pity. Glossing Psalm 25.10, Bonaventure writes that mercy and justice are indistinguishable in the divine life, and that in human life mercy completes justice because both must find their appropriate balance. As an example of the indistinguishable operation of divine mercy and justice we might consider the parable of the vine (John 15.1-5): “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes”. Divine mercy comes with necessary limitation! In human life Bonaventure distinguishes between giving alms because it is right (justice) or because we are moved by another’s misery (mercy).

The third divine attribute for our imitation is piety (pietas). The Latin word connoting the duty owed to those with whom we share a blood relationship is defined by Bonaventure as a gift (donum pietas) of the Holy Spirit by which we see in another the image of God. Whereas mercy looks at the misery in a fellow human creature, piety looks at the image of God in the one who is wretched. This is Bonaventure at his most Franciscan: we recognise our own kinship with the other as a child of God, and even more importantly we recognise the crucified Christ in the face of the one who suffers or is alienated by sin. Mercy and forgiveness that is based in piety is an identification both with the creature who is made in the divine image, and with the suffering God who is found in solidarity with all who suffer.

With this observation, Bonaventure takes us back to the beginning of our reflection. Forgiveness draws us together into the heart of God. Where at the outset I claimed forgiveness as the practice of resurrection, we end with a model of deep forgiveness as creation participating in the triune life of God.
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References

Br Ugolino. The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi. New York: Heritage Press, 1930.
Da Magliano, Pamfilo. The Life of Saint Francis of Assisi and a Sketch of the Franciscan Order. Kindle Facsimile. New York: P. O’Shea, 1867.
Delio, Ilia. Simply Bonaventure: An Introduction to His Life, Thought and Writings. New York, NY: New City Press, 2001.
Dunn, James D. G. The Theology of Paul the Apostle. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1998.
Hammond, Jay M. “A Historical Analysis of the Concept of Peace in Bonaventure’s Itinerarium Mentis in Deum.” Saint Louis University, 1998.
House, Adrian. Francis of Assisi. New Jersey: HiddenSpring, 2001.
Koehler, Théodore A. “The Language of St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas: A Study of Their Vocabulary on Mercy.” Marian Library Studies 29, no. 29 (2010): 11–24.
Linn, Dennis, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn. Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994.
Pederick, Evan. “St Bonaventure’s Itinerarium as a Bridge: From Francis to the Franciscans.” Third Order, Society of St Francis (blog), August 28, 2021. https://tssf.org.au/2021/08/.
Rohr, Richard. “Christ Is the Template for Creation.” Center for Action and Contemplation, 2018. https://cac.org/.
Talbot, John Michael. Francis of Assisi’s Sermon on the Mount: Lessons from the Admonitions. Kindle edn. Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2019.

Praying the Community Obedience – Tony’s story

 I grew up in a Chinese Church and came into contact with the tssf only in recent years.  I was attracted to it and was professed a member in October 2021.  Praying the community obedience in the context of daily office became an essential part of my daily life.  The portion of the Principles of tssf set out in the prayer cycle inspires, encourages and gives me comfort in trying to live out the Franciscan way.  These texts from time to time came out inadvertently during my conversation with brothers and sisters in my church and one of them was particularly inspired by the passage on humility (day 24) and enquired.  He wanted to know more, and so, over a period of 31 days, I had all 31 passages translated into Chinese for him.  He appeared moved by their contents.  The following is my translation of the passage for day 24.  The full translation can be found here.

Praying in a time of Crisis

Prayer in the Midst of Crisis
By Charles Ringma tssf

It seems that one way or another our world has become more precarious – the COVID pandemic, the war in the Ukraine and its possible long-term implications, rising prices and flat wages, the effects of global warming, and our deep-seated anxieties about our governments and major corporations – are all white-anting our inner being.

In all the circumstances of life, we are invited to pray. But I wonder whether we know how to pray well in times of crisis.

One possible reason for this difficulty, is that we are more familiar with the language of blessings and have a limited range of prayers of despair, anguish, and protest.

This limitation of ours is not reflected in the Psalms of the Bible. There we find the language of honesty – “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears” (Ps 6:6); the language plight and frustration – “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Ps. 13:1); the language of demand – “Rise up. O Lord them, overthrow them! By your sword deliver my life from the wicked” (Ps 17:13); the language of escape – “I would fly away and be at rest; truly, I would flee far away” (Ps 55:6); the language of questioning God’s justice– “For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked…They are not in trouble as others are…They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression” (Ps 73:3,5,8); and the language of judgement – “O Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult? (Ps 94:3). And there is much more!

To pray is times of crisis, we need more than our usual prayers of personal piety. The Psalms can help us. And so can Claudio Carvalhaes’ Liturgies from Below: Praying with People at the Ends of the World (Abingdon Press, 2020). In this book we find many prayers and liturgies from Christian voices in the Majority world (non-Western) – a world so often marked by poverty, injustice, oppression, and violence.

Here are some prayers and liturgies. In the “Liturgy of Joyous Rebellion” we read “Do you renounce racism and nationalism?” And the congregation’s response is: “We renounce them” (p.344). In the liturgy of the “God of Freedom” there is the prayer – “Do let us, not only resist oppressors, but also help them be free from their evil manners, so that all people in this world live in freedom and peace, the shalom that Jesus has already given us” (p.100). In a Liturgy of the Eucharist we proclaim these words: “As we lift this bread, asking you to consecrate it, bless our land to flow with milk and honey; plentiful harvest for all. As we break it, break the hearts of the empire and the chains of the oppressed. As it is shared among us, may we embrace each other’s burdens in solidarity and love” (p.133). And this prayer: “Forgive me, Great God, I am hurting but I believe in your time, you will answer, you will come to my help, restore justice, cause wars to cease, heighten sensitivity. Replace my anger with your peace. Amen (p. 182).

There is so much more in these pages. And the language is far more honest and at time a little brutal.

May we find this language for ourselves!

Charles Ringma 11/3/22.

Christians: The third Race?

A Divided Christendom. Can the Idea of a “Third Race” Help Us?

by Charles Ringma tssf

We seem to be living in a very different time to the 20th century when churches were concerned about the lack of unity of the church and its implications for the witness of the church in society. This concern seems to have disappeared.

Today, the splinterization of Christianity continues with many solo churches coming into being and Christian para-church groups continuing to proliferate. Also, many Christians now prefer to be part of informal “groups” or as alienated from the church while continuing to maintain their Christian faith.

All of this is overlaid with the reality that churches are not only divided along doctrinal, but also along ethnic and economic lines. We have Chinese and Vietnamese churches and churches predominately of the well-to-do.
What all of this indicates is that the concept of church, as the Body of Christ, has become a pragmatic and functional reality with little biblical/theological depth. That being the case, we have freed ourselves to “play church” at will, and our little sense of cooperation has not only led to duplication, but also competition. And with the lack of growth of the church in the West, “branding” has become a dominant operational motif. We have to show how we are different, and move you to join our more desirable form of church.

All of this should be of great concern. While this brief reflection does not provide the space to develop a theology of the faith community, some basic comments can be made.

Being linked to Christ involves the double movement of being “baptized into Christ Jesus” (Romans 6: 3) and being baptized into the faith community: “in the one Spirit we were all baptized into the one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free” (1 Corinthians 12: 13). This means that God’s reconciliation in Christ is both vertical and horizontal – we are joined to Christ and linked to one another. Solo Christianity is a postmodern fiction. The heartbeat of our faith is relationality – joined to God, the faith community, and our world.

This Christological community in the Spirit is a community where traditional social categories are overcome through a spiritual unity expressed in a concrete life together: “there is no longer Jew or Greek…slave or free…male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28).

This does not mean that these ethnic and social distinctives disappear in the faith community, but that they are no longer determinative. Christ is the new centre. And as such Christians are a corporate identity and are called “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2: 9).

It is therefore appropriate to ask the question whether in Christ a new “race” has come into being. Are Christians, as distinct from Jews and Gentiles, to be regarded as a Third Race?

The writer of the Epistle to Diognetus seems to think so. The writer speaks of Christians as “this new race or way of life” that has come into the world. The author continues: while they “follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time, they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship.” They live in countries as “non-residents,” and “every foreign country is their fatherland and every fatherland is foreign.”

What we may draw from the above biblical passages and from this epistle is the following –
1. Christians are a distinct spiritual and social entity in society.
2. Their identity in Christ is not limited to their particular church.
3. Their identity is also national and global.

Let me draw some possible implications from these most basic points. First of all, Christians need to think about commonalities and sharing across denominations in their particular localities. Secondly, churches should exercise common concerns for the nation as a whole in which they find themselves. And thirdly, and most fundamentally and controversially, Christians need to find commonality with other Christians across the world.

Majoring on this last point, I believe that we need to rethink our order of priorities. If Christians are indeed a Third Race as a spiritual/social entity in Christ, then my priorities cannot be Australia first, the USA first, or China first, and then my commitment to Christ. Instead, the priority is Christ first, and then my commitment to local, national, and global Christian communities.

This means that I need to question what my country is doing in its policies towards other countries which will also affect my Christian brothers and sisters in that country. Put in the starkest terms I may need to become an “enemy” of my country if my country’s actions hurt another country and its faith community.

While this may all sound far too grandiose or abstract, let me make a simple point. If a church community in Australia forms a link with a church, in say Timor Leste, then the Australian church would have to take an interest in Australian Government policy towards that country and the church may well need to raise its voice in prophetic protest and work hard in expressing caring and practical solidarity.

And moving in the other direction, our solidarity with a faith community in Myanmar or Nigeria or Bolivia could open our eyes to things we are not properly seeing because of our cultural blinkers and arrogance.

All of this does not in any way suggest that we neglect responding to our neighbours and institutions in the general community. Love of God involves love of neighbour. But love of neighbour does not cancel out love of brothers and sisters in the faith in other parts of the world for with them we have a Christo-centric common identity. Paul’s words ring loud and clear: “So then, whenever we have opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family faith” (Galatians 6: 10).

What could it look like if the local cooperation of faith communities could propel us out of our myopic perspectives and liberate us to embrace a global concern of Christians as a Third Race?

Charles Ringma, tssf,
Emeritus Professor Regent College, Vancouver; Honorary Research Fellow Trinity College Queensland; and Professor in the PhD program in contextual theology at Asian Theological Seminary, Metro Manila.

Mary and her place in scripture

Mary and Her Place in Scripture
by Pirrial Clift tssf
I have barely touched on Mary’s Place in Scripture, the topic of this second part in a series about Mary of Nazareth. I chose to attempt to unpick just a few words in Luke’s Gospel. Not being a theologian myself, I have leaned on D.W. Allen and Max Thurian’s work.

Before the Enlightenment common life and language understood softer boundaries between spiritual and physical realities: the liminal qualities of human existence were acknowledged. Metaphor, allegory, myth, poetry, mystery and hidden implications, spiritual powers, heavenly beings, dreams and visions, instinct and bodily knowing; all were considered valid vehicles of God’s revelations.

The woof and warp of salvation history is a tapestry rich in people who heard God’s voice, responded to dreams, entertained angels, conveyed God’s words to others and performed wonders and miracles: some followed stars or heard voices from a burning bush… a donkey… a cloud… Powerful myths containing kernels of essential knowledge were woven into history, preserving tradition and God’s laws through the spoken word; whilst poetry, running through scripture like a golden thread, opened hearts and souls to truths not easily expressed. Parables – and many other parts of Scripture – present truths packaged like Russian Babushka dolls, inviting the hearer to venture ever deeper into their veiled meanings. It need not surprise us then, that Mary’s place in scripture is woven with similar threads.

Mary’s place is central to the Biblical narrative of salvation history. Abraham, who appeared at the beginning of salvation history, held God’s promise that through him every nation would be blessed. Israel repeatedly failed to be receptive to God’s words. D.W. Allen posits Mary as fulfilling Israel’s supreme vocation when she received the living Word, enabling the birth of the long-awaited Messiah. Isaiah’s prophecy ’Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and he shall be called Immanuel [God-with –us]’ was fulfilled in her.

Luke’s Gospel posits her as the link between the old and new covenants. To him she embodies Israel’s vocation, co-operating with the Creator in carrying the Living Word to full term; bringing God-in-Jesus among us for the salvation of all peoples.

Hail
At the Annunciation the Angel Gabriel speaks: ‘Hail (or Rejoice), favoured one’.

‘Hail’’ appears in the NRSV as ‘Greetings’, which does not adequately convey the original meaning, according to Max Thurian, who refers to OT references including Zephaniah 3.14-18 and Zechariah 2.10. ‘Hail’ is used specifically to address the ‘Daughter of Zion’ a female metaphor personifying Israel. He says: ‘the Daughter of Zion is … mystical in that it concerns the union of the Virgin, the Daughter of Zion, with the Lord, her husband: and also eschatological in the sense that it represents the motherhood of the Daughter of Zion and her painful deliverance of the Messianic Hope, or deliverance of the people of God by the coming of the Messiah’. Mary herself, and Luke’s first readers, would have been cognisant of the hidden layers of meaning in that single word of greeting in a way that escapes contemporary readers.

Allen again: ‘Actually at this moment Mary is herself mysteriously Jerusalem and the Temple, the Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenant’. He echoes St Francis’ Salutation to the Virgin Mary: ‘Hail, his Palace! Hail his Tabernacle! Hail his Dwelling! Hail his Robe! Hail his Servant! Hail, his Mother!’ Mary, wherein dwelt the King, the Holy One of Israel; covered him with her body, then later became mother and servant to him.

Full of Grace
The particular word meaning full of grace (sometimes translated favour) addressed to Mary, is found in Ephesians [1.6] to describe the abundance of grace poured out through Christ to all the members of his Body, the church. Mary however, is addressed as ‘the’ full of grace; the type or exemplar, of grace.

The Lord is with you
The Lord was with Moses in the ‘thick cloud’ on the mountain when he received the Law of the Covenant and with his people in the OT in the heart of the covenant community, When the Ark of the Covenant was set in the tabernacle, ‘the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.’ Now Mary stands as the new Temple – having been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, the Presence of God dwelt deep in her body. She is the new Ark, the new dwelling place of God on earth. Jesus, the promised Messiah, is the personification of the New Covenant. As the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle, so Jesus, the Incarnation of God’s glory, filled Mary.

Both Jews and Christians being accustomed to being described as ‘children of Abraham’ i.e. inheritor’s of Abraham’s renowned faith. Mary realised God’s promise to Abraham by giving birth to the promised Messiah, whose sacrificial love delivered the promised blessing to all nations.

Mary’s inspirational faith and trust in God are marked by Elizabeth’s prophetic greeting to her in the hill country: “…blessèd is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Mary ‘treasured all these things’ – the prophetic utterances experienced in angelic visitations, Elizabeth’s prophetic greeting, Simeon and Anna’s’ prophecies and Jesus’ only recorded childhood utterance – ‘in her heart’. God’s word spoken and written and God’s Word become incarnate in her womb were treasured by Mary.

In Mary’s, faith and grace, she is blessèd indeed. Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Pirrial Clift. tssf

Mary of Nazareth: The Franciscan Connection

Mary of Nazareth
Part One: the Franciscan Connection
by Pirrial Clift tssf

The approaching Feast of the Annunciation [25th March] prompted me to write something about Mary, the Patron Saint of all Franciscans – and the Franciscan connection seems an obvious place to begin.

Devotion to Mary has been part of Christian praxis since very early times, however at times it has been spread a little too thickly on the daily bread of the Church, which led to a virtual abandonment of Marian devotion from many Anglican circles. However Mary was not totally forgotten, as evidenced by the little side-chapels dedicated to the glory of God in her name, beautified with fresh flowers, where candles are lit and prayers rise heavenwards. Mother’s Union keeps her memory alive too, honouring Mary as the Mother of God; and dedicates their work to the support and spiritual care of families, always remembering Mary’s vital part in Jesus’ life.

St. Francis’ devotion to Mary is patently clear when we consider that he wrote the antiphon ‘Holy Virgin Mary’ which was recited at both beginning and end of the seven Daily Offices – that’s 14 times each day!

Antiphon: Holy Virgin Mary
Holy Virgin Mary, among the women born into the world there is no-one like you. Daughter and servant of the most high and supreme King, and of the Father in heaven; Mother of our most holy Lord Jesus Christ, Spouse of the Holy Spirit, pray for us with Saint Michael the Archangel, all the powers of heaven and all the saints, at the side of your most holy beloved Son, our Lord and Teacher.
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
[Francis of Assisi. Early Documents. The Saint. Ed. Regis J Armstrong et al P 141, and see footnote.]

The Angelus – also known as The Memorial of the Incarnation – has been chanted by laity, clergy and religious throughout Christendom at dawn, noon and sunset for hundreds of years, accompanied by the ringing of bells in sets of three, symbolising the Trinity. It began as the repetition of three Hail Mary’s and the tolling bell after Compline in monastic communities, and gradually developed into the form we know. It is documented as being used as early as the twelfth century by Franciscans. The Angelus uses Bible quotes interspersed with the Hail Mary [which is itself the combination of a bible quote and a prayer] to recount Mary’s fiat and Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection, concluding with a humble prayer to be made worthy of Christ’s promises.

Some historians suggest that St Francis popularised it as a way of sanctifying the hours, influenced by hearing the Islamic ‘Call to Prayer’ when he visited the Sultan. Be that as it may, St Francis’s theology is certainly incarnational – he loved to reflect on and speak of Jesus’ life on earth; and saw Jesus’ face reflected in the faces of those he met, especially after his encounter with the leper. Jesus’ life and passion were frequently on his mind, and simple things such as the sight of a couple of crossed sticks or a lamb triggered the remembrance of his sacrificial love and suffering.

Many religious still follow this tradition – I imagine the First Order Brothers at Stroud continue to do so. Across Europe when the bells rang people paused in their work to pray and remember that God is with us. During my Monastery years I followed in Sr. Angela’s footsteps and was frequently joined by Monastery guests praying along or simply listening – often asking questions later. These days Brigid the cat accompanies me onto the veranda first thing each morning to pray the Angelus. Sadly, we have no bell.

The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary,
and she conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Hail Mary, full of grace,
blessèd are you among women,
and blessèd is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord,
let it be to me according to your Word.
Hail Mary…

The Word became flesh,
And dwelt among us.
Hail Mary…

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God,
That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

We beseech you, O Lord,
that as we have known the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ
by the message of an angel,
so by his cross and resurrection
we may come to the glory of the resurrection. Amen.

The Salutation of the Virgin Mary

Hail, O Lady, Holy Queen,
Mary, holy Mother of God, who are the virgin made Church, chosen by the Most High Father in heaven, whom he consecrated by his most holy Beloved Son
and the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, in whom there was and is all fullness of grace and every good.
Hail, his Palace! Hail his Tabernacle! Hail his Dwelling! Hail his Robe! Hail his Servant! Hail, his Mother! And hail, all you holy virtues, which are poured into the hearts of the faithful through the grace and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, that from being unbelievers, you may make them faithful to God.
[Francis of Assisi: Early Documents. The Saint, Ed. Regis J. Armstrong et al. P163]

Part one – The Saint – in the trilogy ‘Early Documents’ describes this piece, written by St. Francis, as a ‘litany of greetings describing Mary’s role in the plan of salvation’. We will take a closer look at ‘The Salutation’ next time.

William Short OFM writes that the simplicity, poverty and humility of God revealed in Jesus are found in the Eucharist and in Mary, especially through the feast of Christmas. [Poverty and Joy. William J Short OFM, p40-42] Mary’s simple trust in God, revealed through her humble acceptance of God’s will at the Annunciation, and her lived poverty, echo Jesus’ abandonment of his own will and life to God: she becomes a model of discipleship. Was she the first Christian? Mary gave her life to Jesus, following him faithfully all the way to the Cross – and beyond.

Following the Followers of Saint Francis – Sister Helen Julian’s new book

Helen Julian CSF, Franciscan Footprints: Following Christ in the ways of Francis and Clare,
Bible Reading Fellowship 2020

Paperback, 144 pages.
From $23 online, Kindle edition $11.99

Reviewed by Ted Witham tssf

Franciscan Footprints, like much of Franciscan spirituality, is deceptively simple. In this helpful and engaging book, Sister Helen Julian, Minister General of the Anglican Community of St Francis, tells the story of about 100 Franciscans over the last 800 years – from Saints Francis and Clare in the 12th Century to Padre Pio and Algy Robertson SSF in the 20th Century.

The stories of mainly individuals and some organisations are presented in nine thematic chapters. The first two chapters tell the stories of the original founders, the two Assisi saints (Francis and Clare), and the founders of the Anglican Franciscans, including Sister Rosina Mary CSF, who founded the Community of Saint Francis in 1905.

The titles of further chapters, ‘Thinkers and Writers’, ‘Mystics and Spiritual Writers’, ‘Social Care, Social Justice’, ‘Martyrs’, ‘Missionaries and Preachers’, ‘Pastors’ and ‘Simply Living’, display the breadth of the Franciscan way of life. Placing each of her characters into these themes allows Sister Helen to ‘follow the followers’ and explore the many paths along which Franciscans follow Jesus.

The Franciscan intellectual tradition is represented strongly by the 13th Century Bonaventure and the 21st Century Sister Ilia Delio.

Many of these Franciscans are new to me. Felix of Cantalice (born 1515) was a ploughman who became a lay Franciscan friar. He begged for the friars in Rome for many years, and was known as Brother Deo Gratias, because he exclaimed, ‘Thanks be to God’ (Deo Gratias) for every gift. He sang simple songs in the street and was beloved of children and the poor. His story is told under ‘Simply Living’: his life was seemingly uneventful, but by faithfully being who he was attracted many.

It was good to see the United Nations NGO Franciscans International in its context as an expression of the Franciscan family’s social care and social justice.

I commend Franciscan Footprints warmly. It is a good book to share within the Franciscan family and beyond.

At his death, Saint Francis said, ‘I have done what is mine to do. May Christ teach you what is yours.’ Helen Julian’s book will help both long-term Franciscans and the curious to learn what Christ is teaching them what their life might be. The characters in her book have made their Franciscan footprints. Readers will find much in this book to help them make their own Franciscan Footprints.

Prepare the Way of the Lord

ADVENT CHALLENGE

1. Christmas Unshopping: BUY NOTHING THIS CHRISTMAS!
? Give no gifts this Christmas
? Explain to your family that you are using your economic power to help the poorest by giving no gifts. Often, the gifts we give are useless or unwanted.
? Instead, make gifts or cards which are so much more personal.
? Join the Advent conspiracy. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0o3C5yH77A&feature=related)
? Give Christmas gifts directly to the poor through Oxfam Unwrapped, Christian Blind Mission Gifts of Life, or the Tear Fund.

2. Give to the needy, for example:
? Christmas Bowl,
? Mutunga Partnership,
? Christian Blind Mission ,
? Oxfam, or
? Anglicare.

3. Pray differently. Maybe:
• More silence
• More meditation
• More reflective reading of Scripture
• Fewer words
• Different symbols (candles, ikons, etc.)

Comment on the “Advent Challenge” here. Is it Franciscan enough? Is it too idealistic? Will you try to do some of it? All of it?

DINGHY APPEAL ALMOST TO TARGET
Our Appeal to raise money for a dinghy to transport Tertiaries and others in PNG was launched in January of this year. We are almost there, with over $9,000 in the bank; almost another $2,000 is needed.
Nearly $3,000 of this was raised by John Clarkson (Minister NSW-B). The Province congratulates John for a terrific effort, the centrepiece of which was a bikeathon on the Eve of the Feast of St Francis.
Read on to be inspired, encouraged and challenged. Click here for the rest of the article.

THE POVERTY AND JUSTICE BIBLE

Our JPIC (Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation) group recommends this anthology, which gives more than 2,000 verses from the scriptures on poverty and justice.
Word bookstores have this on special at the moment.

ADVENT WITH FRANCISCANS INTERNATIONAL
Each week during Advent, Franciscans International will post a letter to help us journey towards Christmas. The letter for Week 1 is here .
Franciscans International seek financial support for their work. Please add your donation when paying your subscription (there is a space for this), or send it directly to our Treasurer Geoff Jordan, marked “Franciscans International”.

CHRISTIANS AND LESBIAN, GAY, BI- AND TRANS-SEXUAL PEOPLE
The group charged by Chapter with sensitively creating studies to help us explore non-heterosexualities and the Church has begun its work. We are finding out that the task is complex, and we are currently reading a challenging book edited by Stephen Hunt, Contemporary Christianity and LGBT sexualities. A summary of the book is on Ted Witham’s blog. If you are interested in reading this book, please ask to borrow it from one of the committee (Ted, Tony Hall-Matthews, Glenys McCarrick, Esmé Parker and Colin Valentine).

EDITOR STILL NEEDED
Ted Witham has been editing the newsletter only because no-one in our community has come forward to take on this important ministry of communication. If you think God is calling you to this task, please talk to Ted or your Regional Minister.
You need to be able to work with Microsoft Word (a template is provided), and gather material from the many areas of our community. There is a laser printer available to print copies, and someone else can organise the postage and distribution of copies.
Please pray about this. The need is great.

Peace, joy and love
Ted Witham tssf
Provincial.minister@tssf.org.au

International Third Order is now on Facebook!

At their meeting in Western Australia in August this year, the Ministers-Provincial and the Minister General decided to experiment with a Facebook page.

The page is primarily for people wondering about a vocation to the Third Order, and it directs people to the web-sites of each Province.

It also encourages Franciscans [and all Christians] with short quotes from St Francis, the Scriptures and other places.

You can visit this new page here.