Saturday, October 4, 2008

Stephen Wiest & the Mendicant Nature of the Gospel

The Missouri Synod's service book, Lutheran Service Book (LSB), has for the month of October such commonly known feasts and commemorations as "Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, Pastor" (that feast is kept everywhere, right?), "Abraham" (I can't tell you how many delightful memories I have of that feast growing up), and "St. James of Jerusalem, Brother of Jesus and Martyr," which some preachers, unfortunately, will use as reason and occasion to preach that the Virgin Mary gave birth to children other than the Christ.

As much as I would normally like to explain my concerns about some of the feasts/commemorations I mention above, what really strikes me today about the sanctoral calendar of LSB is that for some reason it was deemed wise not to include the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, the thirteenth century Confessor and founder of the Order of Friars Minor, a beloved feast of the Western Church for centuries.

It shouldn't surprise us that Francis is ignored by the LSB. After all, one of the great themes of Francis' life was his complete embrace of poverty. He wanted only to be despised by the world, and to promote Christ. In another sense, we ought to think of this snubbing of Francis as a scandal, for such a beggarly, or mendicant, outlook on life and faith is wonderfully reminiscent of Luther's own theology and way of life. Here we may mention, in particular, Luther's last words, "We are beggars, this is true." We stand before God with nothing in our hands of which to boast. Our place, spiritually, is that of the beggar. How blessed and ultimately liberated are those who are so poor, "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." For our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, fills us up with the forgiveness of our sins, he clothes us lavishly with his righteousness, and he enriches us with the inheritance of His eternal life.

Of course, inheritance has a cost. It costs the one bestowing the inheritance his life. Christ, in other words, became for us the ultimate poor man, the man of poverty, the Man of Sorrows. He gave His life in bitter suffering and death, so that we may conquer death, and live in Him forever. To obtain that inheritance, we needn't do anything. It requires, rather, a passive sort of righteousness. Or as Saint Paul would put it to his Roman hearers (6th chapter), we need only be incorporated into Christ's death. We are plunged into the Paschal Mystery sacramentally, and thus raised up to new life. This implies, let us always remind ourselves, a cruciform life in this world. If we stand coram Deo with hands utterly empty, as beggars, He will give us all we need, all we could ever dream of and more, but that gift will bear the image of His suffering in this life. In other words, Our Lord Jesus will take those empty hands, and give them a holy stigmata of sorts, so that we can say with Saint Paul, "From henceforth let no man trouble me, for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus."

So the "poor man of Assisi" was blessed after all, by being conformed to the life of Christ. The imitation of Christ was accomplished in him by Christ Himself, Who now lives His life in us (Gal. 2). Having forsook his father's business, and all worldly treasure and honor, Francis was alone with a few of his spiritual brothers when death took him as he chanted Psalm 141. It was the evening of 3 October, 1226. His feast is kept on 4 October, for on that day his body was carried in procession to the grave.

St. Francis' Day is also, and quite fittingly, the day in which my pastor, Fr. Stephen Wiest, fell asleep in Christ. Though it is not easy to compose my thoughts about him on this occasion, I must say I find it very cool, and even helpful to me in some spiritual way, that this year the days of the week line up the same way they did five years ago, when Fr. Wiest died.

It was the middle of the fall quarter of my first year of seminary, on a Monday morning, with the autumn leaves the Michaelmas feast was upon the campus, which admittedly didn't mean much (I can't even remember who preached that day), and in the library that morning I was alerted via e-mail that Fr. Wiest had taken a sudden turn for the worse, and was checked into the hospice.

Just two days earlier, on Saturday, the feast of Sts. Cosmas & Damian, I was in his south side living room. He looked weak, from suffering the fierce return of his lymphoma, yet surprisingly spirited and lively. He even showed off his recently acquired Johnny Cash album, "The Man Comes Around." It would be the last time we would speak to each other. So when I heard that he was taken to the hospice, I guess I wasn't really thinking straight because I decided to drive back to Milwaukee that afternoon, forgetting to bring anything with me but the clothes on my back.

That week in the hospice room there was a continual flow of visitors. Among the variety of people in and out of that room, musicians, Catholic and Episcopalian theologians, family, and acquaintances, were also a few good priests who proved to be good comforting presences. Toward the end of that week, I decided I had to return to Ft. Wayne. And on Sat. evening we received a call at home from Fr. Hill. Fr. Wiest, stripped bare of worldly fame, power, and glory, stripped even of his very life by cancer, ended up alone with his brother, who, praying the psalms beside him, watched him give his last breath.

Stephen Wiest gave up everything, and put on Christ. This blessed beggarly attitude toward the entirety of life Fr. Wiest impressed upon me deeply, by both preaching and example. Following the blessed example of Stephen and Francis, O God, grant that I may despise earthly goods, and ever be glad to partake of Thy heavenly gifts, through our Lord Jesus Christ.

For another reflection on Fr. Wiest, do read Fr. Cota's blog.

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