Feast of St. Francis of Assisi (observed)
In our beloved Grace Cathedral stands a beautiful statue of St. Francis of Assisi by Benjamin Bufano. The posture of Francis in that statue is in the shape of a Tau cross.
Tau is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet and was used symbolically in the Old Testament as a sign to admonish the people to be faithful to God throughout their lives. Those who remained faithful throughout their lives were called the “remnant of Israel” – often the poor and simple people who trusted God faithfully through the distress and hardship they endured.
For this reason, the Tau was also adopted by the first Christians. Its form reminded them of the Cross on which Christ made the ultimate sacrifice for the salvation of the world.
Because of the Tau’s symbolism, this sign was very dear to St. Francis of Assisi. So much so that it occupied an important place in his life as well as his gestures. In Francis, this ancient prophetic sign was actualized and regained its saving power because it expressed the discipline of poverty, which is an essential element of the Franciscan way of life.
The Tau was, therefore, the sign dearest to Francis. It was the sign he used to seal his letters and to symbolize God’s blessing. The Tau for Francis was a sign of his deep spiritual conviction that the salvation of every person can be found in the Cross of Jesus Christ.
In fact, Francis took hold of this sign in a manner so complete and intense that, at the end of his life and through the stigmata impressed in his flesh he became the living image of the Tau that he had so often contemplated, drawn, and especially loved.
Today, the Tau represents for us not just lifelong faithfulness to God or personal sacrifice as a discipline of Christian discipleship, it also, through the life and witness of Francis and in light of our present-day challenge to learn how to care for all of God’s creation in a deeper, more respectful and spiritual way, represents the open arms of every Christian seeking to embrace all the gifts of God’s creation. Arms open wide in anticipation of receiving, embracing, and welcoming the gifts of love, and kindness, and compassion.
So today, as we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, we have an opportunity to celebrate these gifts from God that we know in a special way. Each year, we gather in this garden to give thanks for the gift of God’s creatures that have come into our lives as companions – as symbols of love freely offered, with no expectations and no strings attached. But this year is also special because today we have the exceptional opportunity to witness and celebrate those gifts in the life of a person as well.
A few months ago, Brent came to me and told me that he was in the unusual position of not really knowing for sure whether or not he was baptized. Brent’s baptism was the responsibility of his grandparents, who are no longer alive. They said they had had him baptized, but there was no record of it, no certificate that testified to it. And now, as an adult, a husband, and a father, Brent wanted to know for sure that the relationship with God in Christ that he has come to know has indeed been washed in the waters of baptism and sealed forever with the mark of the cross on his forehead.
So, as we do with so many human situations that are not clear-cut, we in the Episcopal Church have an adaptation to the rite of Holy Baptism that recognizes those who question whether they have been baptized and who want to be certain that they are. It’s called Provisional Baptism. And that is what we along with Brent and his family will celebrate today.
But you know, Brent, the things we do in life do not happen out of context. We are shaped not just by the events in our lives – our baptism, our graduations, our marriage, the death of loved ones in our lives – but those events themselves are influenced in some way by the context in which they happen. And so, the fact that we are celebrating your baptism on the day when we commemorate the life of St. Francis, and as we bless the animal companions in our lives, and as we emulate Francis’ gratitude for the gift of God’s creation, we do that within the context of the quality of God that permeates all of these elements of this day. And that quality, of course, is love. And so, Brent, while baptism always symbolizes to us God’s sacrificial love, your baptism . . . and what your baptism means for you in your life . . . will forever be shaped by the love of God as it was made manifest in the life of St. Francis. Think of Francis as perhaps your own special patron Saint. He is the patron Saint of this region in which we live. He is the patron Saint who we celebrate today. And he will be the patron Saint who will forever remind you of the day when you were marked as Christ’s own forever.
The Feast of St. Francis . . . and the celebration today of Brent’s baptism . . . speak to us in a powerful way about the depth and breadth and timelessness of God’s love. Not only God’s love for us, but God’s love that lives in and through us. The same love that is symbolized in the outstretched arms of Francis in the shape of the Tau Cross.
And so, as I invite Brent to come up here and join me along with his sponsors, Dave and Tony, I would also like to ask you all to stand . . . and please remain standing after this as well . . . and as you are able (as you juggle this with keeping hold of your pets) I would invite you to open your arms wide in the stance of Francis as that beautiful statue in Grace Cathedral depicts him standing in the posture of the Tau Cross. And in this position, I invite you to welcome to yourself all the gifts of this wonderful life and of this amazing creation with which God has blessed us. With the open arms of an expectant embrace, welcome God’s love into your heart and in return, give thanks for all the gifts with which God has so richly blessed you.
Welcoming and giving thanks for compassion.
Welcoming and giving thanks for generosity of spirit.
Welcoming and giving thanks for kindness.
Welcoming and giving thanks for beauty.
Welcoming and giving thanks for belonging.
Welcoming and giving thanks for peace.
Welcoming and giving thanks for love.