So it was that this morning I had the privilege of concelebrating the Holy Mass with His Eminence Paolo Cardinal Sardi - Cardinal Patron of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jersualem, of Rhodes, and of Malta - His Excellency the Most Reverend Domenico Sorrentino, Archbishop of Assisi-Nocera Umbra-Gualdo Tadino, and a good number of priests belonging to several of the Franciscan Orders.
As might be expected, the church was packed with pilgrims from Assisi and throughout Italy, and many other places besides. The number of people was so great that there was, quite literally, standing room only and the congregation had to squeeze together to allow the procession of ministers to enter the church and to leave at the conclusion of the Mass. The choir, composed from what I could tell only of members of the laity, did a superb job and sang with obvious emotion, grateful to God for the gift of the Abbess of the Poor Women.
Approaching the altar, I became aware again of just how small I am. Being perhaps all of 5'8.5" and of slender build, I am generally aware of my own littleness but on some days this awareness is heightened (pun intended). The priests reverenced the altar "from the front," that is, from the side nearest the faithful. The free-standing altar is raised up on a platform that has a steps only from the side of the altar furthest from the people (so there are no steps on the front side).
Generally when a priest or deacon reverences the altar with the kiss, he has to make a profound bow from the waist to do so. Today, though, I needed only to nod my head slightly to kiss the altar. I felt very much like a child approaching his father.
To remember our own littleness in the presence of God is no small thing; it is truly right and just that we do so, for in the contemplation of our smallness we cannot help but contemplate also, as Saint Clare says, the greatness of God "Whose power is stronger, Whose generosity is more abundant, Whose appearance is more beautiful, Whose love more tender, Whose courtesy more gracious, in Whose embrace you are already caught up" (The First Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague, 9-10).
In that brief moment I gave thanks to God for his gift of the Priesthood of Jesus Christ, which he has deigned to bestow upon me, unworthy though I am. It was a moment of great profundity and simplicity, which seems quite in keeping with the spirituality of Saints Francis and Clare.
Reflecting on our smallness, the Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI said:
It is our smallness, our frail human nature that becomes an appeal to the Lord’s mercy, that he may show his greatness and tenderness as a Father, helping, forgiving us and saving us.
And God responded to our plea by sending his Son who died and rose for us; he entered our frailty and did what man on his own could never have done: as an innocent lamb he took upon himself the sin of the world and reopened our path to communion with God, making us true children of God. It is there, in the Paschal Mystery, that the definitive face of the Father is revealed in its full splendour. And it is there, on the glorious Cross, that God’s omnipotence as the “almighty Father” is fully manifested (General Audience Address, 30 January 2013).Saint Francis of Assisi was also deeply moved by the condescension of the Lord - who could not be?! - and writes, with great emotion:
See, daily He humbles Himself as when He came from the royal throne into the womb of the Virgin; daily He comes to us in a humble form; daily He comes down from the bosom of the Father upon the altar in the hands of the priest. And as He appeared to the holy apostles in true flesh, so now He reveals Himself to us in the sacred bread. And as they saw only His flesh by means of their bodily sight, yet believed Him to be God as they contemplated Him with the eyes of faith, so, as we see bread and wine with [our] bodily eyes, we too are to see and firmly them to be His most holy Body and Blood living and true. And in this way the Lord is always with His faithful (The Admonitions, I.16-22).These words of the Poverello were expressed in a very clear way in the image before me throughout the celebration of the Mass. The priests were seated in the right transept facing the altar, and just above the altar I could see on the wall of the of the left transept a beautiful fresco of the Madonna and Child:
Seeing this image, I was reminded first of this admonition of Saint Clare:
Cling to His most sweet Mother who carried a Son Whom the heavens could not contain; and yet she carried Him in the little enclosure of her holy womb and held Him on her virginal lap (The Third Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague, 18-19);and second by these words from one of my favorite homilies of Benedict XVI:
God’s sign is simplicity. God’s sign is the baby. God’s sign is that he makes himself small for us. This is how he reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendour. He comes as a baby – defenceless and in need of our help. He does not want to overwhelm us with his strength. He takes away our fear of his greatness. He asks for our love: so he makes himself a child. He wants nothing other from us than our love, through which we spontaneously learn to enter into his feelings, his thoughts and his will – we learn to live with him and to practise with him that humility of renunciation that belongs to the very essence of love. God made himself small so that we could understand him, welcome him, and love him (Homily for Midnight Mass, 25 December 2006).This Holy Infant, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, was born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1), in the "House of Bread," and placed in the manger (Luke 2:7), in a feeding trough for the animals, all to prefigure what he would later say: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within in" (John 6:53). Yes, the Bread of Life was born in the House of Bread and placed as food in the manger. Yes, God made Himself small to become our food, to be our nourishment in the Eucharist, that by receiving Him we could become like Him.
The mystery of the Body and Blood of the Lord is intimately connected with the Paschal Mystery and with the mystery of the Incarnation. It is this three-fold mystery that is presented before us every time we approach the altar of God, every time we are reminded of His greatness and our littleness.
His greatness is shown precisely in his desire to become small for us. Few of us seek to become small for others, even for God; rather, we seek to become great for ourselves, and sometimes for another. But now and again we do find one among us who does become small for the Lord and today we celebrate one of those who is now truly great in the Kingdom of God.
It was she, Saint Clare, who often referred to herself as "a handmaid of Christ, a little plant of our holy Father Francis [of Assisi] (The Blessing Attributed to Saint Clare, 5). By following the brilliant light of her example, may each of us become a little plant of Saint Francis that by following him would might following the Lord Jesus Christ whom he followed so well!