We usually respond to the Scripture readings when we gather for the Eucharist with verses from one of the psalms. Today, our response is not taken from the psalms but from two different letters of St. Paul. The people who chose the readings for today fashioned what can only be called a patchwork quilt taking verses from both the Letter to the Galatians and from the Letter to the Philippians. Our Gospel acclamation is also made up of verses from the Letter to the Galatians. When we consider these verses and the passage from the first reading, it becomes clear that the Feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis rests squarely on the theology of justification which St. Paul expounds in that letter.
The Christians of Galatia whom Paul is addressing were converts from paganism who were now being enticed by other missionaries to add the observances of the Jewish law, including the rite of circumcision, to the cross of Christ as a means of salvation. This other interpretation of Christianity had been brought to these neophytes, probably by converts from Judaism; it has specifically been suggested that they were Jewish Christians who had come from the austere Essene sect. These interlopers insisted on the necessity of following certain precepts of the Mosaic Law along with faith in Christ. They were undermining Paul’s authority also, asserting that he had not been trained by Jesus himself, that his gospel did not agree with that of the original and true apostles in Jerusalem, that he had kept from his converts in Galatia the necessity of accepting circumcision and other key obligations of the Jewish law, in order more easily to win them to Christ, and that his gospel was thus not the full and authentic one held by “those of repute” in Jerusalem.
The first reading is taken from the last five verses of this letter. It is St. Paul’s summation of the principle of justification by faith. To make his point even more powerfully, he refers to the “brand marks” of Jesus having been placed on his body. He is, of course, referring to the scars left on the hands and feet and side of Jesus after the crucifixion created by the nails and the lance that had been thrust into his side after his death. He skillfully uses these scars as evidence that circumcision, another mark in the flesh, is no longer necessary. By their baptism, the Galatians have been marked with the brand marks of Jesus.
In ruminating on the apparition which St. Francis received atop Mt. LaVerna, St. Bonaventure wrote: “For the cross of Christ, both offered to and taken on by you at the beginning of your conversion and carried continuously from that moment throughout the course of your most proven life and giving example to others, shows with such clarity of certitude that you have finally reached the summit of Gospel perfection that no truly devout person can reject this proof of Christian wisdom ploughed into the dust of your flesh. No truly believing person can attack it, no truly humble person can belittle it, since it is truly divinely expressed and worthy of complete acceptance.”
God had answered Francis’ prayer that he feel some of the pain of the crucifixion in his own body by imprinting the “brand marks” of Jesus on his flesh. Each September 17, we remember this graced moment in order to renew our vocation to reach the summit of Gospel perfection as our Holy Father St. Francis did in his lifetime. We will do just that if we can deny ourselves and take up our cross each day, following in the footsteps of Jesus.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator