Some of the most inspirational stories come to us from the life of St. Francis of Assisi; and my favorite is the story of San Damiano.
One day in the year 1205, Francis went for a long walk in the countryside.
His wanderings took him to a deserted wayside chapel called the Chapel of San Damiano. Francis was fascinated with the place even though its walls were damaged and there were holes in the roof. He went inside and knelt down and prayed before an ancient crucifix. This crucifix was different because the eyes of Jesus were open and Francis felt that Jesus was looking directly at him. Then he heard the voice of Jesus saying to him, “Francis, repair my house, which as you can see, is falling into ruin.”
Francis was not a stonemason, but he felt that he could learn a few tricks of the trade and do the work himself. He went to other stonemasons and begged for stones and hauled them out to San Damiano one by one and rebuilt the chapel with his own hands. This little chapel became his favorite place of prayer for the rest of his life. Whenever Francis went to San Damiano he felt very close to God, much like Moses did when he saw God in the Burning Bush.
The crucifix of San Damiano is not the only one that shows Jesus with his eyes open on the cross. In the Mediterranean Ocean, near the coast of France, there is an island called Lerins which is home to the Monastery of Lerins. And in the monastery church there is a famous crucifix called the “Smiling Christ.” Jesus has his eyes open and he is smiling. Some people are shocked when they see this crucifix. How could Jesus be smiling in the midst of torture and pain? And this is the answer given by the monks: Because Jesus knows that God still loves him.
Like St. Paul says in Romans, Chapter 8: “Nothing can separate us from God’s love.” Jesus knows that and that is why he is smiling during his time on the cross. Although they are rare, you can find pictures of Jesus with his eyes open during his time on the cross. The eyes of Jesus are open as he looks to the good thief and says, “Your sins are forgiven; today you will be with me in paradise.” His eyes are open as he looks up and prays for the soldiers, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing. During his time on the cross, his eyes are open and he sees the sins of the soldiers and the sins of the good thief and he prays that they be forgiven.
His whole life had been dedicated to proclaiming that God wants to forgive us. And, like most people, Jesus died the way he lived. He talked about forgiveness every day and he died talking about forgiveness. One good example of his preaching about forgiveness is found in today’s gospel. Jesus begins with the story of the fig tree which looks like it is dying. The fig tree really should be cut down, but the gardener wants to give it another chance.
The gardener in the parable represents God. Every parable is about God and every parable has a character who represents God. In today’s parable, the gardener represents God. Jesus is using this parable to say, “God is patient and God is giving everyone another chance to repent. That is good news for those who have moved away from doing God’s will. They should be grateful that God is generous. They should be grateful that God is giving them another chance.” Then Jesus says, “If you are distant from God, you better act quickly because you don’t know when the end will come.”
When the tower fell in Siloam, 18 people were killed. They had no warning. They had no idea that they would be the victims of a freak accident. And then Jesus says, “Several innocent bystanders were killed by Pilate’s soldiers in Galilee when Pilate decided to put down a rebellion that was gaining strength in the countryside.” You better repent and seek God’s forgiveness right now because you do not know the day nor the hour.
God forgives those who have a sincere heart; and the time to take advantage of God’s generosity is right now. Within our Catholic Church the season of Lent is a special time to pray for forgiveness. And it is a special season for taking advantage of God’s generosity. We do this in two ways: by celebrating the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist and by celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Both sacraments take away our sins.
The Council of Trent and the Second Vatican Council have told us that the Eucharist takes away our venial sins and Reconciliation takes away our serious sins and our mortal sins. Without a doubt, those two sacraments are the best way to pray for forgiveness. We celebrate the Eucharist every day of the year and during the season of Lent we schedule extra times for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The season of Lent is the perfect time to experience God's love and mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is the season for us to do some soul searching.
Soul searching reveals that we are all prone to pride, and selfishness, and greed, and gossip, and envy, and lack of trust in God.
Now is the time to confess our sins. Now is the time to hear the proclamation that God is kind and merciful.