|Pen and Ink Reflections||
Growing up, even as a little child I was fascinated by what was then known as the English Civil War (although, to be accurate historically, this is now rightly recognised as several different wars across the islands of Britain and Ireland). It was a bitter and brutal period, culminating in the judicial trial and execution of the King. For this was a powerful revolution. Indeed it saw the establishment of a republic, the Commonwealth and Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell. Moreover, in that latter period there was also an extraordinary flowering of truly radical religious and political life and thought. That, I think, was what especially drew me into the study of history. For the origin of many liberal democratic things we take for granted lie there – for example, the insistence on no taxation or legislation without representation, on regular elections, fixed parliamentary terms, equal votes, and, vitally, on religious freedom for different types of groups, particularly the marginalised. Indeed, Cromwell even reopened England to the Jews, who had been banned for centuries. For his supporters were also part of the movements which helped create Congregationalism, the original founding tradition of Pitt Street Uniting Church...
Let me begin with a famous story from the life of St Francis of Assisi.
A long time ago, the town of Gubbio in Italy had a major problem. A wolf had been eating their livestock and attacking, and even killing, those who had been sent to kill him. Understandably therefore the people of Gubbio grew very afraid, and even frozen in their fear, quarreling together about what was to be done and inflicting their anger and anxiety on one another. What could be done? In the end, they realised, perhaps only God could save them, so they asked the holiest person they knew, St Francis of Assisi, to help.
St Francis did not take the task lightly. He knew that the wolf was indeed capable of great violence. Yet, as someone who was particularly close to the ways of animals, he sensed that there might be another way. So he took courage and walked out into the woods where the wolf scarily lay. Then, in the depths of the forest, making the sign of the cross as the wolf came upon him, he spoke softly ‘Brother Wolf, I will not hurt you. Let us talk in peace.’ The wolf was caught in uncertainty. This man did not approach him with weapons and violence. He had no anger or fear. Instead, Francis’ powerful spirit of peace and compassion unnerved him, touching his own pain and fear. So the wolf sat down on his haunches and listened. Francis told the wolf what the people of Gubbio were experiencing, all about their pain and fear and anger, and he asked the wolf ‘why are you attacking the livestock and the people? Why did you kill?’
The story goes on that the wolf then told Francis his story: how he had been left behind by his own pack when he was injured: how he preferred deer and rabbits but he could not run fast enough to catch them, so had had to settle for the people’ sheep and goats; how he only attacked when he was really desperate and hungry; and how he had only killed people when they had seemed to threaten him. Hours passed as Francis and the wolf pondered together. Then Francis, understanding that the wolf had genuine remorse for what he had done, asked the wolf to accompany him to Gubbio, to ask forgiveness, that all might be reconciled. Slowly the wolf put his paw in Francis’ hand and they walked into the town.
In Gubbio, the people were amazed and powerfully moved by the wolf’s repentance. For those who had lost loved ones or livelihoods, it was particularly challenging. Could they too let go of their own pain and fear and violence, share in God’s forgiveness and begin again together in peace? Time passed with much reflection. However, in the spirit of Christ, anguish turned to healing and even expectation. The wolf was turned from enemy into friend, and the town’s greatest help and protector. How then might we too respond, in our fear and struggles, to those who seem to threaten us in our own day?...
All through Advent we have been enjoying a wonderful art display here at St. Luke's exploring the themes of advent and incarnation. It has set me thinking about what I would paint on this theme if I was an artist. I wonder what you would put into a picture of Christmas for instance. Any one like to suggest something?
I want to go back to the picture of the nativity - Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the angels and the wise men. It is the picture familiar to us from our crib scene here in church and as a symbol of Christmas it cannot really be bettered I think. We have of course St. Francis of Assisi to thank for our Christmas crib, for it was he who first set up a manger scene, with ox and ass and invited local villagers to celebrate the Eucharist around the manger. And I have been struck very much by this year by the power of this scene as an expression of the gospel, understood as the good news that in Christ every division is overcome and brought to wholeness...