St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)
Roger W. Lowther
December 20, 2019 • Tokyo, Japan
St. Francis is famous for his great love for animals—Western art is full of images of him preaching to the birds—but did you know that he also created the first live nativity with real animals and people? In 1223 AD after returning from a trip to the Holy Land, he appealed to the senses of sight and sound to make Jesus’ birth feel real to everyone, reminding me of the famous quote, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”
Was St. Francis a missionary artist? In 1219 AD, he went as a missionary to Muslims, telling Sultan Malik al-Kamil he had come “to show him and his subjects the way of salvation and to proclaim the truth of the gospel message” (from St. Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis). However, it was his lifestyle of poverty, service, and prayer that best “preached the gospel” to the Sultan and gave Franciscans custody of the Holy Land. His lifestyle was like a performing art, making the gospel real to everyone he met.
Living in Tokyo, the famous Franciscan missionaries Geronimo de Jesus Castro and Luis Sotelo come to mind. Were they missionary artists too? They planted the first ever church in Tokyo (then Edo) in 1599 near what is now Tokyo Station. (After all the missionaries were expelled or killed in the early 1600s, there has not been a single other church near that site until we planted Grace City Church Tokyo in 2010.) Evangelism in Japan during that time was marked by abundant use of simple and humble arts for contemplative prayer, and it was through these arts that Christians were able to continue to express their faith, hidden in plain sight through hundreds of years of isolation and persecution.
Though it is hard to know how broad to make the term “missionary artist,” I feel safe in adopting St. Francis as one of our own!