I conclude with a story. A year ago my wife and I spent a week in Assisi, a mountain town in Italy and the home of St. Francis and St. Clare. Francis (1182–1226) is commonly seen as the most Christlike of the church’s saints. In his early twenties, Francis had a vision of Jesus, renounced his wealth and all of his possessions, and began a life of devotion to God. By the time of his death twenty years later, a religious order numbering in the thousands had sprung up around him, as also around St. Clare, the most important of his women followers.
Francis found God everywhere—in the birds, the animals, the sun, the moon, death—and his life was marked by a contagious joy. He was known for his embrace of “Lady Poverty,” as he called her, and his radical identiﬁcation with the poor. Shortly before his death, according to the stories about him, he received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ in his hands, feet, and side.
Within a few years of his death, a great church was erected in his honor in Assisi. The Basilica of St. Francis is a masterpiece of architecture ﬁlled with some of the world’s greatest art: not only Giotto’s frescoes of St. Francis’s life, but also magnificent frescoes by Cimabue, Lorenzetti, and others. To a lesser degree, Clare is also honored by an impressive church. Both would have protested and would have wanted the money to be used for the poor.
And as my wife and I spent hours in this extraordinary and extrav- agant basilica dedicated to Francis, visiting it again and again, I thought about Francis and his passion for the poor. He would not have wanted such wealth spent on honoring him. He would have said, “It’s not about me.”
And yet, even though Francis would have opposed its construction, I don’t think the basilica is a mistake, something that never should have been. It reminds us of Francis, draws us to Assisi, perhaps even draws us to Francis’s vision. And because Francis pointed beyond himself to God and Jesus, we may be drawn into an even larger vision.
To apply the story to the church’s adoration of Jesus in our Christology, creeds, worship, art, music, architecture, and so forth: I think Jesus would have said, “It’s not about me.” During his lifetime, he deﬂected attention from himself. In an illuminating passage in our earliest gospel, when a man addressed him as “Good Teacher,” Jesus responded with, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”
Yet I do not think the church’s extravagant devotion to Jesus is a mistake, for the purpose of the church, of Christology, of the creed is to point us to Jesus. And then Jesus says, “It’s not about me.” He points beyond himself to God—to God’s character and passion. This is themeaning of our christological language and our credal affirmations about Jesus: in this person we see the revelation of God, the heart of God. He is both metaphor and sacrament of God.
Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity