Saturday of the Third Week of Advent
Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Two days before Christmas and whom do we meet? John the Baptist, the fiery prophet who keeps showing up in our Advent readings like a bad penny, threatening to spoil the season’s mood of peace and love. What are we to make of this insensitive and ill-mannered person, who thinks he can prepare the way for the Lord by shaking his fist at us and calling us a brood of vipers?
It has been said that the saints are the true interpreters of scripture. Interestingly enough, St. Bonaventure, in the prologue to his biography of St. Francis, compares the “man of peace” to John the Baptist and Elijah. Like them, St. Francis came to “prepare for the Lord a way of light and peace into the hearts of his faithful” by calling “men to weep and mourn, to shave their heads, and to put on sackcloth.”
Saint Francis revealed the way of peace by living a life of poverty and asceticism. He renounced his claim to his father’s property by stripping himself naked in the public square of Assisi, as if to say: I even give up my right to possess the clothes I am wearing. As dramatic as this seems, this was, for St. Francis, only the beginning; for one can give up material possessions, and still claim ownership of one’s own thoughts and ideas. “No one can be said to have perfectly renounced the world if he still keeps the purse of his own opinion in the hidden recesses of his heart.” But for St. Francis, the root of violence goes deeper still. He sought every opportunity to unlearn the habit of self-defense, hoping that one day he might find it possible to relinquish possession of himself – the first piece of property bequeathed to him by his father and the most difficult to give up. St. Bonaventure writes: “He preferred to hear himself blamed rather than praised …. And so when people extolled the merits of his holiness, he commanded one of the friars to do the opposite…. When that friar, although unwilling, called him boorish and mercenary, unskilled and useless, he would reply with inner joy shining on his face: ‘May the Lord bless you, my beloved son, for it is you that speak the very truth, which the son of Peter Bernardone should hear.’”
How does St. Francis interpret the scripture readings for today? It is all too easy to identify the enemies of peace which surround us and to spend our lives organizing programs and coalitions in defense against them; hence, John the Baptist’s warning. When eternity breaks in, we may discover that all the while the enemy was safely hidden in the last place we would expect to find him – in our own heart, where love resides. From there he accomplished his mission, unhindered, disguised as an angel of light.
Dr. David Foote
Associate Professor of Catholic Studies; Associate Editor, LOGOS; Rome Program Manager