Franciscan Feast of Our Lady of the Angels of Portiuncula


Whenever the object of clay which he was making turned out badly in his hand, he tried again, making of the clay another  object of whatever sort he pleased. 
Then the word of the LORD came to me: 
Can I not do to you, house of Israel, 
as this potter has done? says the LORD.


Today the largest spiritual group in the Roman Catholic church celebrates the feast of Our Lady of the Angels of Portiuncula. Counting the first, second and third orders there are more Franciscans than Jesuits, Dominicans, Carmelites or any other group. (A feast is more important than a memorial and less than a solemnity.)
Portiuncula is Italian for "little portion," it refers to a little chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels, and its small piece of land in the Umbrian Valley below Assisi. To this day the shrine belongs to the Benedictines. We've been renting it from the monks ever since Francis moved in, like a squatter, in the thirteenth century. We pay a few fishes each year to the local monastery.
According to the legend, Saint Francis wanted to ease the burden on repentant sinners. The poor could atone for their sins by visiting this little church rather than by going to Jerusalem or Bethlehem. There was some resistance from church officials who thought he was making it too easy on "bad people" who pretended they were sorry for their sins, but the Pope gave Francis this dispensation. Eventually that liberty was extended to any Franciscan church in the world, and then to any Catholic church.
Every generation of Christians of every denomination has to return to this mystery of penance. How does one atone for sins before the Living God and within God's Holy Church? Can the Church welcome its own members who have scandalized the young and demoralized the congregation with their shameful, immoral behavior? If so, what will it require of the sinner? What will it require of the congregation?
In today's first reading, Jeremiah watches a potter working at his wheel with soft, pliable clay. The potter molds the mud into a plate, cup, bowl or vase; but if it turns out badly he simply collapses it into a ball and starts over. So long as the clay is not fired it can be reshaped to any form. The firing will chemically transform the clay into stone and no longer pliable.
Jeremiah saw that the "house of Israel" was not yet fired; it could be remolded into a shape pleasing to the Lord.
But were they willing to be reformed? Were they set in their ways and irredeemable?
There is this constant tug-of-war in our relationship with God. The Lord is "ever ancient, ever new." He is not set in his ways; he does not grow old, despite the theologians who insist that God cannot change. The categories of stasis and change mean nothing to the Lord.
Made in God's image, we too are "ever ancient, ever new." I have known older men who insisted they feel as young as ever -- except for their bodies. The body ages; that's obvious. Does the brain? Does the mind? They don't think so. 
Confronted by continually changing mores, sensitive to the grumblings of minorities who feel disrespected, we learn to pay attention and reconsider our attitudes. We can still hear the cry of the poor and recognize that our entitlements are not widely distributed. They may be making matters worse for them and for us. We can still be invited to make new, unexpected sacrifices.
Although I'll never run a marathon, fly an airplane or develop abs of steel, I am not yet set in stone
Saint Francis and the Lord invite us to the little shrine below Assisi, a chapel where the impoverished maid of Galilee lives with angels, where we can be remolded by the hand of God into ceramic receptacles of grace.

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I love to write. This blog helps me to meditate on the Word of God, and I hope to make some contribution to our contemplations of God's Mighty Works.

Ordinarily, I write these reflections two or three weeks in advance of their publication. I do not intend to comment on current events.

I understand many people prefer gender-neutral references to "God." I don't disagree with them but find that language impersonal, unappealing and tasteless. When I refer to "God" I think of the One whom Jesus called "Abba" and "Father", and I would not attempt to improve on Jesus' language.

You're welcome to add a thought or raise a question.