Saturday, March 22, 2008

Francis of Assisi and Mother Birds: The Story of Jesus Always Renewed

I’ve begun my Holy Saturday listening to Paul Robeson sing “Were You There.” And thinking about rivers, about Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan. About vocation, and about how crucifixion and resurrection is everyone’s story.

Paul Robeson: that deep, rich voice that sounds like something emanating from the center of the earth. And which, for the same reason, has the power to touch the depths of one’s soul, such that the words of the spirituals he sings becomes the song of one’s own soul. The genius of African-American spirituality is to take biblical texts, read them through the prism of historic injustice, historic unmerited and imposed suffering, and cause them to shine as though the texts had been written just the day before yesterday.

The bible as our story. This is one of the many significant contributions of African-American culture to American culture at large, this genius for making the text meaningful here and now, so that the call and response of the text implicates us, implicates me, and is not simply a perplexing word from a strange, unfathomable past with no obvious significance for the here and now.

At a time in which American culture seems curiously, willfully amnesiac about the manifold contributions of African-American culture to the nation’s culture at large, Paul Robeson—and the spirituals—bear remembering. And bear hearing anew.

The immediacy of the biblical story in the spirituals’ rendition is a reminder that the story of Jesus is not simply his story, but everyone’s. I think today of a remark that I believe Henri Nouwen makes in one of his books—that, when John plunged Jesus under the water of the Jordan River, the river took Jesus.

In submitting to baptism by John, in going into and under the waters of the flowing river, Jesus let go of leading his life as if it were his life. His life became the life handed over to God. The river took him. From the Jordan to Calvary, Jesus lived out the consequences of a vocational decision to live utterly and completely for God, for others, and not for himself.

The river takes us. The river takes us when, in the depths of our own souls, we somehow lay hold of our unique calling in life. The river of vocation runs through each human life, giving depth meaning to the shallows of everyday existence. When we reach into the depths, when we reach the rivers flowing at the depths of our own being, and when we give ourselves to those depths, the river takes us. Our lives become not our own, but the life lived in the sway and current of the river flowing through us.

A river that leads inevitably, in every human life, to crucifixion. Crucifixion is part and parcel of the human experience of life. It happens to us over and over again. It is where the river takes us, if we plunge into the river and allow ourselves to be taken: if we give in to vocation.

But inherent in that giving up of our own command of our destiny is the simultaneous—and insane—hope that the self-abnegation will become a fruitful gift: not for ourselves, but for others. This is the resurrection half of the diptych that forms the central mystery of Christian faith: in dying we are born to eternal life; in death, we rise again. We live to become the grain of wheat sown in the ground, which produces sheaves of wheat in abundance for others we will not see, who will come after us.

Or, as Maya Angelou puts the point, “When we cast our bread upon the waters, we can presume that someone downstream whose face we will never know will benefit from our action, as we who are downstream from another will profit from that grantor’s gift.”

A certain kind of distorted piety has often led Christians to think of the story of the crucifixion and resurrection as unique to Jesus. And yet the implication of the four gospels’ account of Jesus’s life is clear: this story of grappling with the voice of God, with a calling to submit to the river, to be plunged beneath it, to let it carry us where it will, to die in order that others may live—this story of Jesus is our story, as well. This is the raison d’etre of the gospels, the reason they were written: to link our human stories to the story of Jesus, such that the story of Jesus becomes our own story, and our story part of the story of Jesus.

We do not dishonor Jesus and his memory when we appropriate the story to our experience, or when we use our human experience to hear and understand the story of Jesus. In doing these things, we show that this story has become paradigmatic for us, that it casts ultimate meaning on our lives: that it has become the hinge story of our own vocational lives.

This recognition that the story of Jesus belongs perennially to the people of God, and not to the hieratic classes that, in any church and any culture, keep claiming the story as the unique possession of the guardians and purveyors of the sacred mysteries, is a recognition that, again and again, enlivens the churches with reforming experiences. This recognition again and again calls forth reformers whose task is to point to the possibility of living the story of Jesus in a new way in new cultural settings.

I have been thinking in this vein this week as I finished Linda Bird Francke’s On the Road with Francis of Assisi (NY: Random House, 2005). Francke writes about a pilgrimage she and her husband took several years ago, in which they sought to visit every place of significance to the life of Francis of Assisi that they could discover.

Francis lived at a turning moment in European history, a time of urbanization in which the traditional monastic patterns of spirituality no longer reached the lives and cultural experiences of the newly urbanized masses of European nations. Part of Francis’s genius—part of his unique calling to rebuild the church—was his ability to act out, with a band of followers, the gospel story in a way that made this story fresh to those living in a new cultural setting.

Much has been written about the charism of Francis and his followers, and the ways in which they reframed the story of Jesus to fit new socio-economic patterns. Something that I have not seen discussed much, however, and which crops up here and there in Francke’s re-telling of the life of Francis, is an interesting gender-transgressive tendency of Francis and the early friars.

Francke notes that, in a letter to Brother Leo now held by the cathedral of Spoleto and dated sometime before 1220, Francis refers to himself as Leo’s mother. “I speak to you, my son, as a mother,” the letter begins, after Francis has greeted his devoted companion (as cited, p. 25).

The use of the maternal language is also found in Francis’s 1217 rule for hermitages. In the rule, Francis called for each hermitage to have three or four friars, in which two would be the mothers of the hermitage, and the other(s) the son(s) (p. 129).

My posting yesterday noted that, from the first creation narrative in Genesis, through the prophets, to the gospels and the words of Jesus, God is continuously imaged as a mother bird seeking to bring her chicks under her wings, to enfold them with love and protection. Francke notes that Francis also employed this imagery (p. 176).

As his community struggled over the question of how or whether it was possible to live Francis’s ideal of absolute poverty, Francis dreamt of himself as a hen spreading her wings to enfold and protect her chicks. Francke indicates that this dream is depicted in paintings in southern Italy, with Francis holding his cloak around his followers.

What to make of these whispers of an alternative view of God and gender in medieval Christianity? First, the whispers can’t be dismissed. Francis’s goal was to tell the story of Jesus in a way that reached those living in an entirely new cultural setting. Like Jesus himself, he acted out his message in dramatic ways—disrobing and handing his clothes to a father who sought to make him over in the father’s image, dramatically repudiating the paternalistic vision of his life. Francis acted out the Christmas narrative in a way that has radically influenced all subsequent generations of Christians. It was he who developed the idea of staging nativity scenes to make the story real (and human) to Europeans of his day.

Francis’s kissing of lepers, his sitting on the floor to eat scraps with lepers and other dispossessed wanderers of the roads of a Europe in which urbanization was widening the economic gap between rich and poor, also brought the gospel message home to his countryfolk. Francis is known as alter Christus because, in so many radical ways, he sought to enact the life of Jesus in a new cultural setting, to keep the story alive, and as a result, his own life is seen as an exemplary emulation of the life of Christ.

This being the case, Francis’s choice to echo Jesus’s use of the maternal imagery of the Genesis creation narrative must not be dismissed or taken lightly. This choice may have been ignored for generations, as Christians focused on other aspects of the story.

Today, however, when currents within the churches seek to use distorted interpretations of scripture and tradition to force women (and men viewed as feminized) into submission, the story takes on a new, portentous, radical (and radically important) significance. If we take Jesus seriously, if we take Frances as alter Christus seriously, we must also take seriously the willingness of both to bend traditional gender lines by using maternal imagery to refer to themselves.

At the very least, the story of Francis illustrates that those rooted firmly in Christian tradition should not find it shocking—as many Christians do today—to see a male assuming what is thought of as a “female” role, when the nurturing role is warranted for a male. There is a quicksilver quality about the varied gender appropriations within the Christian tradition that makes our current fixation on using religion to assure that men be real men and women be real women seem outright bizarre. It did not bother Francis to assume the “female” role of nurturer, of mother, of the mother hen drawing her chicks beneath her wings.

It does bother many Christians today to think in these terms. To the extent that it does so, perhaps we have lost sight of some central strands of the scriptural text and of Christian tradition. And Easter is about remembering that the most central strands of all—the message of ongoing dying/rising—belong to all of us and have to be lived by all of us here and now.

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