Homily, Pentecost A
You may not know this about me yet, but I often like to joke about not liking Franciscans, those countless religious orders that look to St. Francis of Assisi as their spiritual father, but in many ways I actually do admire them. I even imitate their aesthetic by keeping a beard, often untrimmed, and by wearing sandals most of the time. I think it’s more just the popular misconceptions that many people have about St. Francis that I find particularly annoying. When we think of St. Francis, for example, many of us just have an idea that, well, he liked animals. Okay. That’s not untrue. St. Francis did have a great appreciation for all members of God’s creation, and we can learn from that. Statues of Him often include birds or other animals. But the great love of Francis’ life was poverty, the poverty of Christ that he strove to imitate in concrete ways. To be free of worldly attachments and possessions that so often come to possess us. That’s why he appreciated birds so much. Birds don’t store up food in barns and silos for themselves. They live day to day, depending on the providence of God.
St. Francis was especially devoted to the Passion of Jesus, His Way of the Cross, when the poverty of Christ was at its height. As He was hanging from the Cross, naked, stripped of everything, Jesus was even abandoned by most of His closest friends and disciples. He was left with nothing and no one on this earth but the Cross and His trust in God the Father. St. Francis was so devoted to the Passion of Christ upon the Cross, he meditated upon this mystery for so many hours and years that God gave Francis what’s called the stigmata, the wounds of Christ manifested in his flesh, the nail marks and some of the pain along with them in his hands and feet, and a wound in his side.
Now you’re probably wondering why I’m talking to you so much about St. Francis on this Feast of Pentecost. I would venture to say that St. Francis is one of the most widely misunderstood saints in the history of the Catholic Church, while at the same time, he was one of the saints that strove most fully to imitate the virtues of Jesus and to become a living image of Christ, and Francis was only able to do that through the grace of the Holy Spirit that he received in his Baptism, in Confirmation, that he also exercised in his ministry as a deacon.
Now we still haven’t come to the most obnoxious misuse of the memory and legacy of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis is frequently quoted as saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” The only problem with this quote is of course that St. Francis definitely never said it. And it goes against much of how Francis himself lived. St. Francis was not the type of person to pass up any opportunity to tell the people around him about Jesus Christ, explicitly, with his words and his actions, even at the risk of his own life. There was a time during the life of St. Francis that the Muslim king of Egypt was offering a gold piece to any of his subjects for every head of a Christian that they would bring to him. So what did Francis decide to do when he heard about this? He wanted an audience with that ruthless king. So he traveled with a companion to Egypt. They were captured. They were beaten. They were imprisoned, but finally, Francis got his audience with the king. And to this Muslim king, St. Francis proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ. He told him to repent of his sins, to be baptized, and to believe in Jesus, the one and only Savior of the world.
When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost to the Apostles in the upper room, these men who were once frightened and cowardly were emboldened and strengthened to proclaim Jesus Christ to the crowds gathered from throughout the world. Throughout the Acts of the Apostles, we continually hear how they were even able to rejoice in the sufferings, persecutions, and dishonor that came to them in response to their bold, explicit preaching of Jesus Christ, using words and actions. The Holy Spirit who appeared to them as tongues of fire… if you’ve ever wondered why St. Luke calls them tongues of fire instead of flames. Maybe he calls them tongues of fire because we’re actually supposed to talk about Jesus and use our words to proclaim the Gospel.
I think many of us like the saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words” because we’re lazy and cowardly, because we’re looking for any excuse to not have to proclaim Jesus Christ explicitly, in both word and deed, because we don’t want to risk upsetting anyone, really, because we don’t want to risk anything in our following of Christ. We’ve discovered a better way, a safer way, to live as Christians in a world that wants to go its own way, in a world that rebels against the One Way of Jesus Christ. We’ve found a way to stifle the fire of the Holy Spirit, the one who so animated all the Apostles, St. Francis, and every missionary in the history of the Catholic Church.
The Good News for us is that the Spirit of God is ever ancient and ever new. His strength has not weakened at all over the course of the past 2000 years. He is still able to do marvelous things in those who are willing to risk, in those willing to put themselves out there for the sake of Christ. You have not received any other spirit than the one received by the Apostles, Prophets, and Martyrs. By your Baptism and Confirmation, you have been strengthened with the infinite strength of God. So cast off all fear and go. Proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every person under heaven. Risk something. Use your words and your actions.
In a few moments, I’ll invite the Confirmation candidates to stand and renew their baptismal promises. I’ll pray over them and then anoint them with Sacred Chrism, sealing them with the Gift of the Holy Spirit. They will be anointed on the forehead, which for most of us—unless you have a lot of hair covering it up—is one of the most public parts of the body, a reminder that those who are confirmed are to take a more active and public role in the world in bearing witness to the catholic faith.
In both Baptism and Confirmation we are given the grace of the Holy Spirit. The main difference is that while Baptism disposes us to receive God’s grace, to assist at Mass, to receive the wisdom and guidance that comes from God’s Word and the nourishment that comes from the Body and Blood of Christ, the grace of Confirmation is directed more towards being able to convey God’s grace to those around you, not just to receive grace for yourself, but to become an instrument that shares the Gospel with everyone you meet. The grace of Confirmation is the grace of the Apostles at Pentecost, not just to be huddled together in the upper room but to go out with boldness to proclaim Christ in the world today.
After anointing the forehead, I’ll also say to each of the newly confirmed, “Peace be with you,” as I give them a slight slap on the cheek. This gesture has long been associated with Confirmations as a reminder that the peace of Christ—which the world cannot give—is not incompatible with adversity and persecution. That if you actually share the Gospel as you are called to do, if you actually live your Catholic faith fully in the world today, you’ll likely be hated for it. But God gives us the grace as He gave the first Apostles after Pentecost even to rejoice in our sufferings, in our sharing in the saving Cross of Jesus Christ. “Preach the Gospel at all times,” and remember that words are necessary. The grace you receive today is not just for you. It’s for everyone you will meet, everyone who will witness your words and your actions. May they always speak of Jesus our Savior.