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St. Francis and Good Friday

By April 14, 2017 3 Comments

When playing the hero went terribly wrong, and he had recovered from his injuries, Saint Francis came upon a broken down church where he encountered an icon of the crucifixion. Staring at the wounds of Christ, he underwent a change, a transformation of sorts. Soon, the young punk concerned with reputation, wealth, and having a good time, began to spend more time alone, divesting himself of worldly possessions, seemingly unconcerned with social status. He embraced a life of penance and poverty, what might on the surface seem like an ascetic life of detachment and other-worldliness. Only for Francis the life of discipleship wasn’t about some hyper-spiritual denial of embodied experience—it was the opposite. The icon upon which he gazed revealed something more mysterious, much more profound—the divine embrace of human limitation. Franciscan spirituality isn’t about ascending to some higher, abstract, encounter with the divine, it is about a radical descent—to follow in the footsteps of God who took on the full experience of human flesh. This is a downward move, an inward move, one that insists on getting lost in the experience of embodied life. Here we discover Francis’ love for the creation, not as an object to be controlled or used, but as a powerful Christological expression of God’s love. This downward move is the undoing of all of our ambition, all of our prideful attempts to make a name for ourselves. Thus, it is in the suffering Christ that we all come undone, deconstructed, reminded of who we are called to be.

In his lectures, Creation and Fall, Dietrich Bonhoeffer discusses the two trees at the center of the garden. Together, they represent the boundary that is human existence. They remind us that we are human creatures. Our life, our identity, our relationship with our Creator flow out from this boundary that marks the center of our existence. Here, embodied life and the limitations that come with it, are, as Genesis says, “good”. The nature of sin is to want more, to constantly desire to transcend out limit, to transgress the boundary and become something else. The “good” part of Good Friday is often thought to be how Jesus pays some sort of price, or endures some sort of punishment, to appease or satisfy some higher justice. I wonder, however, if the “good” in Good Friday isn’t in the way it brings us back to Genesis. That in the wounds of the crucified Christ we see our limitation, we are reminded of the goodness of our embodied existence, we are reminded of the boundary—that we are meant to be flesh and blood, living, breathing, suffering, human beings. Good Friday is for all who have been crushed beneath the weight of ambition, pride, and misplaced desire. It is for all of us who long to be something more than we were created to be, beckoning us all to let go, and rest in our abnormal, mysterious, humanity.

I’ve always been fascinated by the strange detail in Mark’s account of the crucifixion where after he tells us that Jesus “breathed his last”, and after the temple curtain is torn in two, the centurion has his own St. Francis experience. Mark 15:39 says, “Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!” On this Good Friday may we all look upon the wounds of Christ and be reminded of the passionate love of God for our beautifully insignificant human lives.

Jason Lief

Jason Lief teaches Practical Theology at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He served as editor of Reformed Journal for many years and was one of the original bloggers on the RJ blog. You can find more of his writing at


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I learned from this, thank you.

  • “‘As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.’ The human race is redeemed, not by ‘acceptance,’ but by death and resurrection. This is the fullness of the message of Easter Day.” Fleming Routledge, THE CRUCIFIXION, p. 594. She would insist, and rightly I think, that substitution is an essential aspect of Jesus’s work on the cross–along, of course, with other things, including embodiment, that hinge upon Incarnation.

    • jasonlief says:

      Doug – thanks for the comment. Yes, I’m not trying to move away from the saving work of Christ on the cross. I do wonder, however, if there are consequences to our language of satisfaction and substitution in the way we think about our humanity. This is not a denial of sin, or the need for salvation, just a question about unintended consequences of our language and categories.

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