The young man rode his horse along the road that weaved through the lush countryside of Assisi, Italy, when he heard a sound that struck terror in anyone who heard it. It was the ringing of a clapper, a type of bell–a signal that the man approaching on the road was a leper.
Our scene is set in the late 12th Century, when the very word “leper” made your stomach jump, for it indicated a horrifying skin disease. Some believe the word was used in the Middle Ages to cover an entire range of skin diseases, but today leprosy refers to Hansen’s Disease, a rare affliction in which people lose the sensation of pain in various parts of the body. As a result, victims do not feel burns or other pain, and they suffer terrible injuries, without even being aware of it. Just imagine what might happen to your hand if you picked up a burning hot piece of metal but did not feel the pain.
Whatever form the disease took in the Middle Ages, a young man like Francis would normally try to stay a safe distance from any leper swinging a bell.
But Francis of Assisi was not a normal young man.
When he was 25 years old, Francis experienced a dramatic conversion to Christ. At the time, Francis was like so many other young men–living a wild life of women and war. He had gone off to fight in glorious battle, wearing a shining new suit of armor and a rich, beautiful cloak (which he gave away to someone who needed it more than him). On his way to the battleground, Francis stopped at an inn at Spoleto, where a voice in the night spoke to him. He believed it to be the voice of God.
“What do you wish me to do, Lord?” Francis asked.
“Return to the land where you were born, and you will be told what you must do.”
So Francis obeyed. He returned home to a father outraged that his son had wasted all of the good money he spent on the new armor. If he was going to pay for new armor, the least his son could do was use it in battle, even if it meant death!
Coming back home without a scratch on your armor would be embarrassing to most young knights, but soon after he returned Francis was struck by the love of God, and he turned his life completely around. He dressed like a beggar and spent his days in prayer and serving the poor–a far cry from his wild days just one year earlier. He was now following the path of God, and it was on this path that he encountered the leper.
Julien Green’s biography of Francis, God’s Fool, describes what happened next: “As if stepping out of the oldest stories in the Bible, a leper came toward him shaking his clapper. Francis’s whole being revolted, but an irresistible force made him leap down from his horse and march right up to the bringer of horror…We are told that Francis approached the leper, whose face was one vast sore, took his hand, and placed his mouth–that once squeamish mouth–on the leper’s rotting flesh. An immense joy swept over the young man, and his kiss of peace was immediately returned.”
After giving this leper the holy kiss of peace, Francis got back on his horse and headed for home. On the way, he began to sing.
God calls us to do the difficult, the noble, and the heroic. How many times have you heard a voice calling you to do something loving or generous for someone else? How many times have you felt a nudge to do something even as simple as telling a parent or child you love them, or maybe serving at a soup kitchen or helping an elderly neighbor mow their lawn, or talking to a friend about God?
These acts may not sound as bold as kissing a leper, but they take audacity and determination. We simply need to act on those nudges from God.
Francis didn’t go to war in the traditional sense; he didn’t put to use the armor his father had purchased for him. Instead, he put on a different suit of armor–the armor given to him by his Holy Father in Heaven.
Wearing the kind of armor described in Ephesians 6:10-18, he fought a spiritual battle, warring against the devil and the fears that keep so many of us from doing what is right.
By kissing a leper, Francis won the battle, and the devil slunk away in defeat.
By Doug Peterson