Homily for the feast of St. Bonaventure, July 15, 2020, at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, NYC.
After this the Lord appointed seventy others, and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to come. And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and salute no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace shall rest upon him; but if not, it shall return to you. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages; do not go from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you; heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ (Luke 10:1-9, RSV)
The young man we now know as Bonaventure of Bagnareggio (he was baptized Giovanni di Fidanza) began his studies in theology at the University of Paris at age 18. It was 1235, less than 10 years after the death of Francis of Assisi, but there were already there tens of thousands of Franciscan Friars across Europe, including students and several very distinguished scholars at the University. He soon became a friar himself. Bonaventure earned the equivalent of a Doctor of Theology and stayed on to teach at the University. He was known as a brilliant theologian, and produced a tremendous body of writing over his lifetime that ranged from academic theological treatises, to pastoral admonitions, to beautiful and poetic writings on spirituality and mystical experience. He went on to serve as the 7th Minister General of the Franciscans, and was appointed Cardinal Bishop of Albano just a year before his death in 1272. He was probably in his mid-50’s.
Bonaventure said he was drawn to the Franciscans by their humility, a trait for which he became known himself. According to legend, when messengers from the Pope came to tell him of his appointment as Cardinal, they found him outside the friary where he was living, elbows deep in washing the pots and pans. When they tried to present him with the distinctive broad brimmed tassled red hat of his new office, he is said to have asked them to just leave it hanging on a nearby tree, and he’d get it later, when he’d finished his chores.
Today’s gospel relates the sending of the seventy, one of several gospel descriptions of Jesus sending out his disciples (either the 12 or larger groups like this) on missions of healing and preaching. The “plot line,” as it were is rather basic, but let me point out three somewhat obvious elements. First, the disciples (using the term broadly) in this story are sent out by Jesus. They don’t get lost and wander off, they don’t get bored and go home. They leave the immediate presence of Jesus because he sends them, with specific instructions and limitations. Second, they go with a purpose, a task to accomplish. Jesus does not send them off to have a break or take in the scenery, he sends them to proclaim a message of peace and healing in his name. The third obvious point actually requires us to read a bit further than we did this morning, but it isn’t surprising. Verse 17 of this chapter tells us that “The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!’” Having done the work they were sent for, they go back to Jesus, who sent them in the first place.
They are sent, they bring a message, they return. If we allow ourselves to enter into their experience, it would no doubt have been full of emotion: trepidation, anxiety, doubt, excitement, joy. I imagine that on their trip, things sometimes went well, and sometimes didn’t (as indeed Jesus suggested it would be). And I can imagine the reunion, with joy and wonder at having had the experience of being no less than the Lord’s emissary, and basking in the presence and approval of Jesus once again. But on paper, it’s still a pretty basic plot. Go, do, return. It’s hardly the biggest cliff-hanger tale of the gospels.
Sister Ilia Delio is a Franciscan scholar and author and has helpfully offered a template for understanding Bonaventure’s admittedly complex thought, and these remarks on his thought come largely from her book Simply Bonaventure.* Delio describes Bonaventure’s ideas as organized around the pattern of “emanation, exemplarity, and consummation,” or in simpler terms, of going forth, of living into a purpose, and of returning to the source. Put another way, Bonaventure always asks three questions: Where have we come from, what are we doing here, and where are we going? In the framework of today’s gospel, we might say it is a pattern of being sent, doing what we were sent for, and coming back rejoicing. Go, do, return.
Bonaventure applied this pattern at all levels of his understanding of the world and its relationship to God. He describes God as an endless fountain. All of creation -- plants, animals, and inanimate matter --flows forth out of the creative and perfect love of God. In beautiful imagery, Bonaventure also compares the universe to a song, sung out by God in perfect harmony. Everything created goes on, still entirely connected to God, and bearing witness to its source. It speaks of God’s glory, and even when we have not cared for it well, creation has shown its inherent power to heal. Christianity has traditionally held that created matter is not infinite, and just as it flowed forth from God, it will one day cease to be, and will return to God who made it.
The history of humanity follows a similar pattern: Humankind flows from God, bears witness to God (sometimes well, sometimes not so well) and will ultimately return to God in the consummation of God’s kingdom.
Likewise the individual person flows forth in birth, gives his or her unique message in living, and in death, returns whence he or she came. And this is true not only physically, but in our spiritual life as well. We (as individuals and the church collective) are spirits flowing forth out of the perfect loving relationship of God in the Trinity. We exist now in a world of will, and choice. Sometimes we remember where we came from, and sometimes we forget. But we are never really without God, and we are ever invited into the experience of love for God and for one another. Our goal, the “where are we going?” is to remember, and so return our spirits to their rightful place in the conscious presence of God. It is to fall in love with God, and with God’s Word, Jesus, who was sent, who flowed from the heart of God because of love for us, who lived out the example and purpose he was sent for, and who returned to his source in God. We also are invited to return to that love.
This journey on which we are sent is lifelong. It is also daily. We are distracted and forgetful, admittedly. But over and over, perhaps many times each day, we flow forth from the loving creation and support of God, we live, love and bear witness to his peace, and we return to rest in our relationship with God. Each sending already has the returning in mind. All things come from God. All things have their existence in God. All things lead back to God.
So today as we remember the life of Bonaventure let us also remember where we come from, what we are doing here, and where we are going. Let us remember that we are a beautiful song, sung out from the very mouth of God, resonating his love in the world, and forever echoing back in praise, glory, and loving thanks.
* Delio, Ilia, OSF. Simply Bonaventure. Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2001.