One of my favorite teachers, St. Francis of Assisi, is credited with the saying “preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary, use words.” While he first uttered these words over 800 years ago, the truth contained in them is immortal regardless of whether or not you follow his Christian teachings.
I believe that if we were to boil the teachings of the gospels down to their basic element, they could be summed up through an answer Jesus delivered to the Pharisees when asked which was the greatest commandment in the law. Jesus’ response was love - first for God, second for everyone else. This is what St. Francis implores us to do. Absent communicating the messages contained in the gospels with our mouths, our actions demonstrate exactly what is in our heart.
Too often, I find people straying from this ideal, particularly during the holidays. For a season that is supposed to focus on joy and goodwill, many people succumb to the stress of holiday shopping, overwhelming crowds, and over spent budgets. As we look forward to whatever vacation we have managed to plan, we end up loathing the time we spend at work. Our stress causes us to sleep poorly and we turn into grouchy, unpleasant people. Happy Holidays everyone!
Our unthought actions, typically reactions to how we are feeling on the inside, reflect where we are in relation to Jesus’ teaching. The unhappy person who cuts us off in the mall parking lot deserves our love. The screaming baby in the restaurant and the parents who appear to ignore the grating noise deserve our love. The homeless man who approaches your window with the a bucket of water and a squeegee deserves our love.
Now, imagine yourself in any one of these situations as either of the participants. No matter which one you are, you have the power to change the other person depending upon your response. You can make their day better or you can make their day worse. St. Francis would implore you to reflect on the gospel message and act through love, reflecting the teaching of Jesus. Perhaps in any one of these situations, your love could infect the other person, helping to spread love through their interactions as well.
Or you could spread the opposite of love; it is just as infectious, and too often the easier, quicker choice.
St. Francis’ message applies all year round, not just at Christmas time. I understand how hard it is to stare down rudeness, selfishness, and even hate, and respond with the most truly loving (and not sarcastic) reactions. We are usually so eager to protect our ego that we tend to sink to the level of our attacker instead of raising them up to our level of love. But imagine how different this world would be if we could do that. How many ego driven actions did we take today that could have easily been derived from love? How differently would you feel right now had you chosen to respond with a smile instead of a grimace?
American culture is a paradox of sorts. From an early age we see that being the best is rewarded the most. We practice as much as we can, putting others down, creating victories where there is no competition just to say we are the best, generally acting without love. But, America claims to be a Christian nation, espoused in Christian ideals. If this were true, wouldn’t our first choice always be love instead of ego?
I think if Jesus or St. Francis were to see the America we have created, they would be severely disappointed in our efforts. Instead of a nation built on the Christian ideal of love for others, we have built a nation focused on loving ourselves, which was not the answer Jesus provided to the Pharisees. Well, not unless we have usurped the throne of God and placed ourselves upon it.
The beauty of this world is that we can change it. We can use love to guide our every action, reflecting on the teachings of these wise men. Our influence can spread beyond our own lives, beyond our own communities, spreading love everywhere. So today, as you go about your business, reflect on your actions towards others. Are you living up to the expectations set for you many centuries ago? I hope so.