Jesus instituted the Eucharist during his celebration of the Jewish feast of the Passover with his disciples. According to a Jewish tradition, the word “Passover’ (pesah in Exodus 12:11), meant ‘a passing, or crossing over’, referring to the crossing of the Red Sea. St Francis was acutely aware that Jesus Christ passed from this world, which is enslaved by sin, to the Father’s company, in the true Land of Promise, and that Francis, and all of us in Jesus, would pass over with him in our death.
Thomas of Celano, in his Second Life of St Francis, 217 ( FA:ED II, p.387) places the last illness of St Francis explicitly in the eucharistic setting of Holy Thursday. He writes: “As the brothers shed bitter tears and wept inconsolably, the holy father had bread brought to him. He blessed and broke it, and gave each of them a piece to eat.” Francis’s words and actions recall those of Jesus when instituting the Eucharist, in Matthew 26:26: “Jesus took some bread, and when he had said the blessing he broke it and gave it to the disciples.”
The Second Life continues “He also ordered a Book of the Gospels to be brought and asked that the Gospel according to Saint John be read to him starting from that place which begins: Before the feast of Passover. He was remembering that most sacred Supper, the last one the Lord celebrated with his disciples. In reverent memory of this, to show his brothers how much he loved them, he did all of this.”
The account of Jesus washing the feet of the Apostles, Jn 13:1-20, is John’s equivalent of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper in the synoptic gospels. If listening to it read was Francis’s dying wish, then he must have intended to die in a eucharistic setting.
A commentator says, “It is difficult to know if Francis wanted his brothers to read only the passage of Jesus washing the feet of the Apostles or that which follows. Since Francis quotes John’s Last Supper discourse so frequently in his writings, it seems plausible that he wanted to hear it during his last moments” (FA:ED I, p.278 footnote a).
Francis was given to dramatizing the gospels. Jesus died stripped of his garments, and so Francis had himself stripped before his death. He made his own death, like the death of Jesus, a passing from this world to the Father, which is why we call it the Transitus, the "passing over", in Latin.
John 13:1 reads: “He had always loved those who were his in the world, but now he showed how perfect his love was.” Here, for the first time, John clearly states that Christ’s life and death are an expression of his love for his disciples.
Jesus loved his disciples to the end, that is, utterly. Celano, in his Second Life, 216, echos John’s words several times: “(Francis) loved to the very end the brothers and sons he had loved from the beginning.” Francis at the end said, “I forgive all my brothers, present and absent, all their faults and offenses, and I absolve them insofar as I am able” (1 Cel 109).
Three important aspects of the Eucharist are that it is a prayer of thanks and praise of God the Creator and Saviour, that it re-presents the sacrifice of Jesus by his death on the cross, and that it is the sacrament of his Body and Blood. In Celano’s accounts of the death of Francis, we can identify these eucharistic elements.
Francis had his own prayer of praise of God the Creator and Saviour, the Canticle of Brother Sun, sung when he was dying, and added a stanza on Sister Death. Whether consciously or not, he struck a eucharistic chord.
Jesus, near to death, prayed Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?”. Francis prayed a similar psalm, 142, “With a loud voice I cried to the Lord; with a loud voice I beseeched the Lord” (1 Celano, 109).
After the death of Francis, “the wound in his side made them remember the One who poured out blood and water from His own side and reconciled the world to the Father” (1 Cel 113).
John 13 continues with the foretelling of the treachery of Judas, then leads into the Farewell Discourses, often quoted by Francis. Francis did not foretell the end of Brother Elias but preferred him over other friars till his dying breath. Like Jesus at the Last Supper, Francis foresaw grave problems ahead, saying “a great trial and tribulation is at hand” (2 Cel, 216), but did not associate them with Elias. After the death of Francis, the party of the Spirituals accused Elias of the treachery of Judas in betraying Francis’s ideals of poverty.
As we celebrate the eucharist on Holy Thursday and the death of Jesus on Good Friday, and his passing over to God the Father on Holy Saturday, we can accompany St Francis in his celebrating the Easter Triduum in his dying days. It is amazing how St Francis had such control of the situation while he was dying. A consummate dramatist, he died on cue.
We may not be able to imitate Francis in the circumstances of his death, but while we are well able to celebrate the liturgy of the Easter Triduum, let us do so in the most active way possible, worthily, attentively and devoutly.