Summary: In Christ the sacred has taken flesh and broken into the dark reality of this life. The sacred has encountered us.
“The Sacred Encounter” John 1:1-18
Ever since returning from a recent pilgrimage to Jerusalem I have been keenly interested in the Crusades. That is, the 500 year period during the middle ages when European Christians took it upon themselves to liberate the Holy Land from Arab Muslims. Everywhere one looks in Jerusalem the mark of the Crusaders is plainly visible. This is true from ancient city walls which were rebuilt during the Crusader period right up the current edifice of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was constructed by the Crusaders. The so called “holy wars” of this time period were not without serious loss of life and impact to the Holy Land. They played a major role in shaping not only much of the landscape of the area but also the shaping of the many of the modern perceptions of the people who live in the Holy Land; even right up to this very day.
The Crusades were a bloody period of warfare between the Christian Kings of Europe and the Islamic Sultans of the Middle East. There were horrible atrocities committed to civilian populations during these wars and the warfare itself was violent and cruel. Throughout its long history the Church has many times been guilty of conducting itself in ways which are horribly inconsistent with the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. This is born out from even a cursory examination of Church history. Whether it was many of the atrocities committed in Christ name by Crusader Knights, brutal wars in Christ name carried out during the Protestant Reformation, or the Salem witch trials, sinful man has misunderstood and misrepresented the way of Jesus time and again.
For as many examples of man’s misuse of the name of Christ and misrepresentation of His Church though, a great deal more examples of Christian courage, Christ-like love, and Christian charity may be found. One such example is found in the life of the great man of God Saint Francis of Assisi during a particularly brutal battle. In his book “The Saint and the Sultan” Paul Moses examines the account of the Crusader siege of the Muslim Egyptian city of Damietta in 1219. He recounts the events of one holy monk and his companion who, even though highly discouraged to do so by Roman Church authorities, journeyed to the very heart of Islam to appeal to the Sultan on behalf of Christ.
The author recounts from solid historical sources that the monk, now familiar to all of Christendom, St. Francis of Assisi, even preached Christ to the Sultan, his court, and even his troops. One need only have the most surface level understanding of Islam to recognize the incredible nature of this encounter between Sultan Malik Al-Kamil and the man of pace, Saint Francis. Al-Kamil was a staunch Sunni Muslim. It is a wonder that Saint Francis and his companion Illuminato even survived their first encounter with the Muslim guard as they attempted to enter the Muslim camp.
The record shows that as these two lowly monks, wearing rough wool tunics tied at the waist with a cord, were brought to the Sultan he asked them if that had come on behalf of the Pope. Saint Francis reply was, “We are ambassadors of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Saint Francis, the man of peace, the gentle but impassioned monk who is well known for his love of even the smallest of animals, implied in his answer that he had come on behalf of the Prince of Peace and not the Pope. The subtly of his answer was not likely lost on the Sultan.
For several days after this brazened monk, who had risked certain death, was kept as a guest of the most powerful man in Islam and allowed to dialogue about religious matters and was even allowed to preach Christ to Islamic troops, under the condition that he did not outwardly accuse Muhammad or speak ill of him. The peaceful conversations of these two wise men took place only a few miles from the Crusader camp to which Saint Francis would soon return.
In the grand scheme of the 5th Crusade the visit of Saint Francis to Al-Kamil did not make a great deal of difference. Although it is noteworthy that of all Christians it would only be the Franciscans who would be allowed to remain as custodians of Christian holy sites after the Crusaders were expelled by the forces of Islam.
Eventually the Crusaders did conquer Damietta after starving out the inhabitants and beating back Muslim forces. Of that cities eighty thousand inhabitants only eight thousand survived the siege; the majority having died of disease and starvation. The following year the Crusaders were driven out by a reinforced Muslim army, never to have penetrated so far into Islam again and never to have maintained their ultimate goal of long term control of the holy city of Jerusalem.