Feast of St. Francis: St. Bonaventure's Major Legend Introduces us to St. Francis through the Eyes of a Friend
emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross."
"Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father".
Jesus is the living Word sent from the Father with an ongoing mission to bring all men and women - and the entire cosmos - back to the Father. He is the One through whom the world was first created and in whom it is now being re-created. This pattern of emanation and return, this recapitulation of all things in Christ, is prominent in Patristic literature, the writing of the early fathers of the undivided Christian Church.
It is also foundational to the theology developed by Bonaventure in the Major Legend. Most importantly, it is embodied in the little Poor man who Bonaventure wants the world to see through reading the Major Legend. He compiled the Major Legend to show the world Francis, whose life is a path to follow to nuptial union with Jesus and the fullness of Trinitarian communion.
Francis teaches us, through the Book of his own life, that all men and women are called and capacitated by grace to return back to the Father through the Son, moving from image into likeness. In addition, that like him we bring the cosmos along as microcosm and mediator.
The Crucified Christ is embraced by Francis with a self emptying love so passionate and consuming that he becomes the One whom he desires. Through grace he also experiences transformed human desires and cultivates the spiritualized senses of the hierarchic man. As his response to God unfolds, Francis ultimately offered Himself with and in Christ for the world. This is the fullness of the meaning of crucified and cruciform love.
The Major Legend challenges the reader to view the life of Francis as the vocation of every man and every woman who responds to the invitation of Jesus. Using words as symbols, the Seraphic Doctor shows Francis, a word walking, as a model for all of us who bear the name Christian.
Francis thus becomes a word from the Word. Bonaventure was a friend and a disciple of Francis. When he looked at Francis he saw Jesus Christ. Bonaventure, like his friend Francis, was also a mystic. To him the Spirit of Francis is the Spirit of Jesus and "witness to Jesus is the Spirit of Prophecy". (Revelations 19:10)
Reference to the imagery of the Book of Revelations is laced throughout the Major Legend. It was written in an age when that book and other biblical books of the apocalyptic genre were of great interest and were being used, in various ways, to interpret the times.
The full flourishing of the work of grace in Francis is the stigmata, a Divine seal imprinted in his body. The Cross revealed in the life and stigmata of Francis is the Cross of Jesus Christ, which is the ladder between heaven and earth and the altar of sacrifice upon which we are all invited to die. As the Seraphic Doctor, Bonaventure, wrote in the prologue of the Major Legend:
"The grace of God has appeared in these last days in his servant Francis to all who are truly humble and lovers of holy poverty, who, while venerating in him God's superabundant mercy, learn by his example to reject whole heartedly ungodliness and worldly passions, to live in conformity with Christ and to thirst after blessed hope with unflagging desire."
With these words, which incorporate St Paul's letter to Titus 2:11, Bonaventure begins the Major Legend and lays out the challenges to the reader to follow in the footsteps of the little poor man of Assisi by walking with him up the mountain of Calvary and finding the path to transfiguration.
The Major Legend was completed by Bonaventure after his own experience on the mountain of LaVerna, the place where Francis received the wounds of Christ, the stigmata. This is the place where Bonaventure writes, "that angelic man who descended from the mountain (LaVerna) carrying with him an image of the crucified not handmade on tablets of stone or wood, but inscribed in the members of his flesh by the finger of the Living God"
The full revelation of this kind of realized eschatology in Francis became most clear to Bonaventure on La Verna. This experience, where Francis was stigmatized, was the Mount of Transfiguration in the life and ministry of Francis. There he became joined to the Transfigured Christ, who was crucified in and for love.
LaVerna is what theologians call a hermeneutic, the lens through which Francis' life and meaning comes together for Bonaventure. The stigmata given on that Mountain is the seal confirming in the flesh of Francis the fullness of grace that was present in his life. Francis was a sign, a human sacramental of sorts, and the exemplar of evangelical perfection.
He was, by grace, transformed into Jesus the Word, thus becoming what I call a word walking. This transfiguration thus also becomes a lens through which the life, spiritual progression, holiness and ministry of Francis comes into sharp focus for Bonaventure. He has his own experience on that same mountain and is never the same.
This unique connection between the Mountain of Golgotha and the Mountain of Transfiguration is unique to Francis - and unique to the theology developed by Bonaventure. Certainly, the Mount of Transfiguration is the central place in Eastern Christian Theology with the Eastern emphasis on deification as a way to articulate the work of transforming grace. The Incarnation is viewed in the East as including the entire Christ event from conception to Ascension.
Yet, there is little or no reference to a connection between these two mountains in Eastern Christian sources. Only in the Christological anthropology developed in the work of St. Nicholas Kavasalis, a fourteenth century Byzantine layman and mystic, could we even find a hint of this kind of connection:
"It was when he mounted the cross and died and rose again that human freedom was won, that human form and beauty were created." This is a place for further research on the synergies between Eastern and Western mystical and spiritual theology - and their meeting in Bonaventure's theology. I hope to be able to do it.
On this Feast of St. Francis, St. Bonaventure's Major Legend introduces us to Francis through the Eyes of a Friend and Eye Witness.
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Pope Benedict XVI's Prayer Intentions for January 2013
General Intention: The Faith of Christians. That in this Year of Faith Christians may deepen their knowledge of the mystery of Christ and witness joyfully to the gift of faith in him.
Missionary Intention: Middle Eastern Christians. That the Christian communities of the Middle East, often discriminated against, may receive from the Holy Spirit the strength of fidelity and perseverance.
Keywords: St. Francis, St. Bonaventure, Major Legend, Franciscan, rebuild my church, holiness, penance, stigmata, La Verna, holiness, happiness, Deacon Keith Fournier
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