This year for our Holy Week Tenebrae service I presented a short reflection on Luke 22: 47 – 52 — the betrayal and arrest of Jesus.
The disciples are having a very bad day.
And it’s only just begun. They were up all night, and when they did manage to catch a little shut-eye Jesus yelled at them. And now one of their own has come with crowds and armed guards to arrest Jesus and to take him away. Not at all a good start to the day.
No surprise, then, that one of them should lash out. Not against the real problem – not against the priests or the officials here to arrest him, or against the guards who would fight back, not even against the betrayer whom they’d recently considered a friend. But they lash out against a servant, against the most insignificant person there.
It’s a typical response, really. If the problems of the day are too big, too intimidating, too frightening to confront head on, how often do we vent our frustrations elsewhere? How often do we seek the quick and easy catharsis of cutting off a servant’s ear?
It’s at times like this that we need to hear the voice of Jesus – Jesus, who is having a worse day than any of them, Jesus who alone knows how much worse it will get before it gets better. Jesus, who knows that, yes, it will get better. Jesus, who steps forward into the middle of it all and says “Enough!” Who takes a moment to heal the wounds, and then goes ahead with doing what needs to be done.
The basic story is well-established in the biography of Saint Francis of Assisi — how at the height of the Crusades, he ventured into enemy territory to meet with the Sultan and to preach to him. Some suggest that Francis was seeking martyrdom, though the prevailing thought takes the saint at his word: he wanted to end the wars and felt that converting the Muslims to Christianity was better than trying to kill them all.
Beyond that basic summary, the details of the story can vary widely depending on who is telling it. More than any other event in Francis’s life, I think, this episode tends to reflect not so much the ideals and worldview of the subject as of the biographer. In The Saint and the Sultan, Paul Moses delves deep into the history behind the incident, to try and get at the truth behind the spin.
Throughout his lifetime Francis played the role of conscience to the Institutional Catholic Church. His strict adherence to the Gospel ideals and a life devoted to Christ’s teaching tended to put him in stark contrast to the Medieval Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. And nowhere was this more evident than in his reaction to the Crusades. While church authorities were beating the drums of war, Francis embraced the call to “love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.” More than any other event from his life, I think, this one put him in direct opposition to the religious authorities and called them to a depth of soul-searching that they were not willing to do.
And so, while the story could not be entirely stricken from the Saint’s biographies, it was watered down, reinterpreted, and revised, leading to the many variations we see today. Moses does a good and thorough job of tracing each version to its origin, picking apart the more dubious claims, and making some solidly educated speculations at the truth.
This book is more academic than most biographies I’ve read of Saint Francis, but I appreciated the author’s thoroughness. It really gave me a deeper and more profound appreciation for the Little Poor Man of Assisi, who has always been an inspiration to me. I feel this book helped me get to know the Saint a little bit better than I had before.