In Bible Study, we are blessed to have a participant who teaches biblical Hebrew at the college and graduate level. She always brings interesting insights into the origin of Hebrew words and expressions. For example, there a root word in Hebrew that is used to form the words for “neighbor”, “friend,” and “enemy.” Suddenly the expression, “Hold your friends close and your enemies closer” has a bit more depth – and in either case, they are neighbors. So, when Jesus responds to the questions, “…and who is my neighbor?” Then the we see the challenge – to cross over to embrace the other. That challenge is even in the very word “Hebrew” which comes from the Semitic word “a’piru” – those who cross over.
Let me tell you a story about crossing over: During WWII there was a platoon of Army Rangers deployed well behind enemy lines on a critical mission during the European campaign. A single sniper bullet had killed one of the platoon members. The mission had to continue, but they just could not leave their friend as a stranger in a strange land, buried in an unmarked grave that they might never again find. They remembered a small Catholic church in the area. So, under the cover of the moonless night, they approached the church and rectory, and knocked on the door. After a while a single light came on in the house. Eventually, the door cautiously opened and the parish priest even more cautiously greeted them.
They Rangers told him that they wanted to bury their friend in the church cemetery so that they would know he had a proper place until the Lord came again. The priest’s mind raced. This was still occupied territory. Would the burial be seen as a sign of collaboration? Would he be endangering his parish community? The awkward moment lingered in the silence. The Rangers repeated the request assuming the priest had no understood, but he gently waved his hand indicating he understood, then said, “Of course, let us celebrate his life, give Glory to God, and place him at rest among his fellow Catholics.”
Then it was the priest’s turn to endure the lingering silence as the Rangers looked at him and each other, before the sergeant replied, “Padre, Billy Bob was Baptist.” The priest knew that only Catholics could be buried in the hallowed ground of the parish cemetery. He thought for a moment and told the rangers, “Let us celebrate this man and mourn his passing. We will take care of your friend. We will bury him just outside the fence, and we will tend his grave as we would our own.
The Rangers prepared the grave, prayed, said their goodbyes, thanked the priest, and returned to war.
More than a year later, with peace declared in war-ravaged Europe, the Ranger platoon, at least those who survived, was sent back for R&R in Paris. They decided to pay their respects to Billy Bob and let the Army know exactly where they had laid him to rest. Army records needed to be completed and, besides, there was a family to inform.
It wasn’t easy to retrace their steps. It took several days of searching but they eventually spotted the country church. It was Sunday and mass was being celebrated inside. They would visit the priest later when the mass was done, but now they wanted to pay their respects to Billy Bob. As they walked the perimeter of the fence they were confused they could not find his grave. Confusion gave way to anger as they assumed the priest had gone back on his word and removed the evidence of his collaboration with them. They waited and silently fumed.
At the end of Mass, when the priest saw them, he knew who they were. He came over and greeted them, giving praise to God for their safety. The sergeant, as calmly as he could, asked the priest, “What happened to Billy Bob’s grave? You promised to care for it and now we can’t find it. What gives?”
The priest led them to a grave, within the walls of the graveyard. There was a simple stone inscribed in French marking the resting place of their friend. The priest simply said, “We moved the fence.”
Moving the fences. Crossing over an existing boundary to welcome the other. It is a simple metaphor, but it describes the life of St. Francis as he moved the fences that defined life in medieval Europe, that defined what holiness meant, as he and his Franciscan brothers and sisters were part of a movement that said holiness is for everyone, not just the religious elite.
St. Francis moved the fence, crossed over to the Leader of the Muslim nations to extend peace during the height of the 5th Crusade. Franciscans have followed that missionary charism. Within one generation of St. Francis’ life, the friars were found in North Africa to south, England to the north, the steppes of Russia, the Holy Land, and as far east as China. Ever moving the fences, always yoked to Christ and to each other. Always inviting people to belong to Christ and to each other.
People with different faces, languages, customs, became brother and sisters. Enemies became friends and neighbors. Fences came down, bridges went up.
Take a look at your friends, enemies, and neighbors. Do you see fences or bridges? Do you see the possibility of the bridge? What holds you back? “And who is my neighbor?” is an old question asked in every age. Francis’ answer was always the same: “Therefore hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves, so that He who gives himself totally to you may receive you totally.”