Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972)

At our church’s recent service in remembrance of St. Francis of Assisi, our pastor mentioned in passing the Franco Zeffirelli film, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, which depicted the life of Francis. My husband and I had never heard of it, so we rented it shortly thereafter. Stylistically, the film was a bit dated, but we really enjoyed the substance.

My husband and I have always been drawn to the story of St. Francis (Francesco di Bernardone) because of his emphasis on the fundamentals of Christ’s message: the unimportance of material things and loving God’s creation (human and otherwise). The film certainly focused on these aspects of Francesco’s life, but also did a good job of putting his life in historical context. Living in the United States in the twenty-first century, I don’t find particularly shocking Francesco’s decision to renounce his birthright to live a life of simplicity ministering to lepers and other marginalized human beings. But in Francesco’s day, that decision was astounding and deeply disturbing to many.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when he lived, the church had become a hierarchical institution that resembled and rivaled earthly kingdoms. As dramatized in the film, bishops and dukes engaged in power struggles and had separate armies. The wealthy enjoyed positions of privilege and the poor were neglected--even in church. In the film, one of Francesco’s closest friends and first followers was another son of privilege who returned from the Crusades embittered by the experience. Francesco and his followers essentially dropped out of traditional society. They roamed the area of Assisi singing praises to God, restored a dilapidated church, and lived off the food given to them by others. They wore rags and were filthy. Local people of influence complained that Francesco was corrupting the cream of the crop of Assisi.

The climactic moment of the film comes when Francesco and his followers walk to Rome and gain an audience with the pope. The Vatican resembled an earthly king’s ornate court. Francesco and his group arrived with dirty bare feet and tattered robes. The night before their audience, they slept on the street in front of the Vatican. When they were admitted, they looked out of place amongst all the finely dressed people in the pope’s reception hall. When Francesco quoted scripture to them, the people in the hall were aghast. They considered it blasphemy and heresy to have quoted the words of Jesus to them. The film ends after the pope throws off his elegant robes and steps off his throne to speak with admiration with Francesco and humbly kiss his filthy feet.

In a time when the church had established an earthy kingdom of great power, just repeating to the powerful the words of Jesus was shocking and even dangerous. In an odd way, it seemed reminiscent of the situation in the United States in the early twenty-first century.

Mark 10:35-37, 41-45

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. "Teacher," they said, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask." "What do you want me to do for you?" he asked. They replied, "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory."
When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

John 13:1-5, 12-17

It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. "Do you understand what I have done for you?" he asked them. "You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them."

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