As an ordained deacon, St. Francis of Assisi possessed power to bless persons and things. For people he used this blessing:
The LORD bless you and keep you!
The LORD let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you!
The LORD look upon you kindly and give you peace!
Although many know it as the Blessing of St. Francis, those alert during the liturgy of the Word, recognize that he took it from the book of Numbers. God commanded Moses to entrust that blessing to his brother Aaron, who handed it on to his sons. So succeeding generations, including Francis in the twelfth century, have brought it to us.
The Latin word for “handing on” is traditio from which we derive our word “tradition.” It means to transmit something valuable. New Year’s Day is a good moment to consider the significance of handing on what we have received.
The Gospel shows Jesus deeply immersed in sacred tradition. One week after his birth, Joseph brought him to the priest to be circumcised and named. The rite of circumcision went back some two thousand years as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham. From that moment until the final meal with his disciples, Jesus followed the traditions of his people.
Precisely because Jesus reverenced tradition, he recognized that one cannot hand it down by simply repeating formulas and gestures. Rather, each generation – and each person – must do the difficult work of appropriating their meaning. No matter how dramatic the original event, we can easily lose sight of its significant. When that happens, we must return to the source.
Let me give an example. Recently a mom told me how her college age son came home with a sweatshirt saying “Bad Religion.” On the back was a circle enclosing cross with a slash mark over it. Since her son had attended years of religious education and received confirmation, she was greatly disappointed. However, instead of chiding him, she gave a personal testimony. “Look,” she said, “if it was not for that cross, I would not be here today. It got me through the worst times.”
Her son began backpedalling. “Oh, Ma, it's not against you, just those hypocrites who are always condemning other people...” But he finally agreed to wear the sweatshirt inside out. And much more important, his mother's testimony made him take a more serious look at the cross - and the tradition she worked so hard to transmit to him.
Our culture has degraded the cross - along with most other Christian symbols. By contrast, the sacred traditions of Islam do not face similar assault. Who would put a slash over a crescent – and wear it publicly? “Bad Religion” will never do it. They know the symbol is precious to millions and many of them would fight for it. Christianity, on the other hand, is an easy target.*
I can add a small personal testimony about renewing my own appreciation for the central event of our tradition. Perhaps because I had grown accustomed to seeing the cross everywhere, I had somewhat lost touch with what it orignally meant. A history book woke me up. I read about how Julius Caesar was kidnapped by pirates who held him for ransom. When finally freed, he mounted an expedition to hunt down the kidnappers. Capturing them, he had them crucified. However, since Caesar had gotten to know the pirates personally, he took pity. He told his soldiers to mount ladders and end their agony by cutting their throats. The horror of those men’s death caused me to put down the book. Then I reflected that Jesus also faced the same painful, humiliating death. I never looked at the cross quite the same.
We have received great symbols and mysteries, but if we do not constantly reflect on their meaning, we will quickly lose touch. That’s why the example of the Virgin is so important. “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” (Lk 2:19)
We know that Moslems will fight and die for their sacred tradition. What about us? Without espousing fanaticism or violence, we need to reflect on what we have received from Jesus. In his person, he embodies all the greatness of Moses, the prophets and the Israelite sages. Saints like Augustine, Francis and Edith Stein appropriated that tradition and lived it in their age. Will you and I rise to the challenge?
I must say that, as we begin the New Year, it feels great to give you the same blessing as Aaron and Francis. We need it so we can, with serenity, take up the challenge of interiorizing our tradition - and handing it on to our children.
*How easy a target we are is demonstrated by the fact that a major movie company (Miramax) is currently distributing a film in which a woman feeds a consecrated host to her cat. They know most Catholics will simply shrug. Would they dare a similar blasphemy against the Prophet Mohamed? Again, I am not advocating violence, but believe our Moslem brothers can teach us something about militancy.
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