Pier One sells a three-foot garden statue of him. So does Etsy, Lowes, Wayfair, Walmart, and Amazon. He’s the world’s most beloved saint, and for $350- body draped in a friar robe, hands cradling a bird bath, waist carrying the cross of Christ, head encircled by a crown of thorns haircut, face cast in a benevolent gaze- a concrete miniature can adorn your back yard too. But if St. Francis of Assisi is merely known as a good luck charm for your heirloom tomatoes, then something essential about his radical and remarkable life has been lost.
Forced to move by the government, Mary and Joseph weren’t thinking about planting perennials. They were counting the seconds between contractions, arguing over a tax bill they couldn’t afford, fretting about the family carpentry business surviving the scandal, and wondering if the ninety-mile walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem would mercifully end around the next bend. After arriving late and being rejected by every seedy motel in town, they collapsed in the dirt, the delivery room for their newborn son a shanty out back.
Up in the hills of Galilee, rogue shepherds were trespassing in the shadows of someone else’s pasture when the sky was torn apart, and a celestial being lit up the darkness with a spotlight on the terrified vagrants. Rather than being interrogated and handcuffed, the herdsmen were trusted with a word the world was not expecting to hear: heaven is invading earth as a Savior wearing diapers.
With a billion-voice choir joining the angel to sing out the Good News, what is God saying yes to in the incarnation?
Luke 2:6-14 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
The shadow places and people of life.
The shepherds of ill repute.
The domestic details of everyday.
Once the days had grown shorter, the leaves had fallen, and the hanging wreath replaced the carved pumpkin, a family meticulously setup their plastic nativity scene out in the front yard. There was the thatched roof stable with rough cut beams, the feathered wing cherub hovering over the holly bushes, the shining star hung thirty feet up in the Oak, the humped camel with faux fur standing watch, the bearded Joseph and the maiden Mary draped in peasant clothes huddled around the swaddled baby asleep on the haybale. Despite all the elaborate preparations, come December 27th, after the presents had been unwrapped, the parents disassembled the figurines and stacked them back in the dusty corner of the shed behind the lawn mower. After watching this take place for the first few years of his young life, their observant son interrupted the packing to ask, “Mommy and Daddy, why do we always put Jesus away?”
Agreeing with the adults, many of us ascribe to a two-tier universe of warring factions. Spirit contesting flesh, body against soul, Church opposing world, hallowed verses profane, sacred over secular. But when God takes up residence among us, the binaries, many perpetuated by religion, are nullified forever. By coming as Emmanuel- God with us, God among us, God surrounding us- God’s declining to pick sides about where the holy locates.
Narrowly defined, incarnation means to “take on flesh” in the brown skin of Jesus. In the most cosmic sense, God’s incarnating in the Word spoken across the formless void, the bread broken and shared at table, the seed pulsing with tomorrow’s growth, the breath animating life, the door opening onto what’s becoming, or the entire goodness of materiality. What God is saying yes to is nothing less than all of it.
“Earth,” according to Barbara Brown Taylor, “is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”1
Unconcerned with the heresy of pantheism- the doctrine that God and reality are one in the same- Francis of Assisi regarded the moon as sister, the sun as brother, the tree as friend, the lark as conversation partner, and the cicada as congregant. He assumed nature was mystical; if it’s alive it’s ensouled; the temporal order one uninterrupted “continuous sacrament.”2
On this day, the feast of St. Francis, may we venerate our most beloved saint not as a garden variety gnome sold at the hardware store but as the Christian incarnationalist who refused to believe Christmas only comes once a year.
Following him into the verdant sanctuary of creation, let us never put Jesus away either.
1 Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 15.
2 Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2014), 47.