General Introduction - The Prophet - 11 

General Introduction

The prophet: in a period of history buzzing with talk of prophets, prophecy, and signs,1 Bonaventure presented such an image of Francis of Assisi in the opening passages of his Major Legend of the saint.2 It became a leitmotif for the next generations of Lesser Brothers, one that brought to the fore a concern for their role in the unfolding events of the world. The biblical images of Francis offered by Bonaventure resonated deeply with the apocalyptic views of Joachim of Fiore and prompted many of Francis's followers to declare the dawning of a new age of salvation history. In its context the Saint was situated squarely in the framework of history and unmistakably portrayed as ushering in a climactic turn of events, coming in the spirit of Elijah, as another John the Baptist, God's herald, and prophetically calling all peoples to change their lives. Appearing as the apocalyptic "angel ascending from the rising of the sun," Bonaventure portrayed the Founder as marking his followers with the Tau, the sign of salvation given to the poor and humble, and denied to the rich and powerful.3

Bonaventure's portrait of Francis in the Major Legend must be seen within his evolving theology of history. His last major work, The Collations on the Six Days of Creation (1273), broke in a striking way from the traditional interpretation of the Genesis narrative.4 Following Augustine, medieval Christians had seen in the account of the six days of creation an allegorical description of six ages of salvation history, from Adam until the end of time. For Augustine, God's salvific work culminated in the "sixth age" with the creation of the "new Adam," Jesus Christ. But in His death and resurrection, Christ also inaugurated the seventh age, the "Sabbath rest" of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Augustine maintained that history's goal, achieved in Christ, was no longer to be awaited in the waning sixth age, but in the salvation of the full number of God's elect. Bonaventure's own allegorical interpretation of the "week" of creation offers a radically different vision. Following Joachim of Fiore, he sees not one, but two parallel dispensations of salvation history. The first, beginning with Adam, culminated with the coming of Christ. But salvation history does not end in this manner. For Bonaventure, Christ is the center of the ages. His Mystical Body, the Church, must live through another six ages until his Second Coming. From this perspective, Bonaventure saw Francis – and his Order – playing a critical role in salvation history. Francis, the perfect imitator of Christ, ushered in the sixth age of church history, and was thus a prophetic figure who would lead those Christians struggling to live Christ's Gospel in the midst of apocalyptic tribulations.5

Bonaventure's Major Legend, distributed to every Franciscan house in Europe for annual table reading to the brothers on the occasion of Francis's




Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 3, p. 11