Reading for this Special Franciscan Feast
From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body.
Two years before he died, several days after the Feast of the Holy Cross, while praying in solitude Francis had an astonishing vision of the Crucified Lord.
Since the beginning of his new life he had always been especially drawn to the crucifix of Jesus. You might say, "Well, yes, who can not be fascinated by the cross?" but in fact your familiarity with the cross and crucifix owes much to Saint Francis.
Before his conversion Jesus was more often represented as the King of Glory, enjoying and administrating imperial authority over all the earth. He was more often represented on a throne with a crown of gold and silver.
Francis earliest experience of the cross was Jesus' speaking to him from the San Damiano cross, which displays a man clad in the High Priest Aaron's ceremonial drawers. He is not in agony but standing comfortable with his arm outstretched in welcome and embrace. His hands and feet are bleeding but the angels are catching the blood in chalices for distribution to the faithful.
Francis' vocation, then, was not only riveted by the words he heard, "Rebuild my house, which you can see has fallen into ruin." He was also moved by the image of Christ Crucified. In fact, when he designed a habit for the friars he said it should be shaped like a cross, so that we put on Christ's cross whenever we don the habit.
Throughout his life he continued to meditate in an entirely new, revolutionary way on the suffering of Christ, rather than on his comfort.
"Look," he said, "at the humility of God!"
With his penances -- fasting, midnight vigils, exposure to the elements (heat, cold, wet, bugs, etc.) and other mortifications -- Francis wanted to put on Christ. He would own nothing more than what Jesus had owned, which was nothing. Francis was continually astonished that the Son of God renounced the security, comfort and luxury of heaven to live and die in poverty. Francis had tasted enough wealth growing up in a rich family to know both how seductive wealth is, and how false.
When we consider the life of Francis and his fascination with the cross, it comes as less of a surprise that he was marked with the wounds of the cross -- nail marks in his hands and feet and a gaping wound in his side. These bleeding, painful wounds appeared on him after he had seen the Crucified Lord in a vision.
It came about like this: as he knelt in prayer under the open sky he saw something coming toward him from the heavens. Fascinated he watched as it fluttered birdlike over him. It had six wings like those he had scene in paintings of the Seraphic Angels. But in the middle of the vision he saw the living Christ crucified. It was both terrible and beautiful. The pain of the Crucified was unbearable; but the love he showed in his eyes for Francis was overpowering.
We don't know how long the vision lasted but only when it disappeared did Francis fall out of his trance. Days later, the wounds appeared. He was signed with the stigmata.
When Saint Paul boasted of his own wounds he was probably referring to the whip marks on his back and other scars he'd picked up along the way. He could say in all sincerity, "I bear the marks of Jesus on my body."
A thousand years later, recalling Jesus' wounds and Saint Paul's words, the first disciples of Francis and the deeply troubled Church understood the stigmata although it was without precedent. The Church was in desperate need of new direction and new inspiration. It could not come from an imperial pope, cardinal or bishop. It had to come from a man who wanted nothing more than to live and suffer like Jesus.