About half a year after the Great Fast of Lent that prepares us for the Easter festivities there is another lesser-known Little Fast that punctuates the year. This time of penance and abstinence is traditionally undertaken by the Franciscans in imitation of St Francis of Assisi, who had begun the custom of fasting from the Assumption until St Michael’s Day (September 29) as a spiritual preparation for the great feast of the angels; St Francis had an “especial love and devotion for St Michael”, said St Bonaventure.
This fast is sometimes called “St Michael’s Lent”, although at its apex are the feasts that fall midway on the 14th and the 15th of September. The former is the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross which commemorates, among other events, the miraculous finding of the relic of the True Cross of Christ by St Helena in Jerusalem in 326, and the dedication of the church of the Holy Sepulchre. Pilgrims returning to Europe from the Holy Land in the 12th and 13th centuries were especially moved to contemplate the Passion of Christ, and devotion to the Holy Cross and the wounds of Christ increased at this time.
The day after Holy Cross Day (September 15) is the feast of the Seven Sorrows of Mary, which contemplates Our Lady’s participation in the sufferings of Christ Crucified, as prophesied by Simeon: “a sword shall pierce your own soul too” (Lk 2:53). Because of the intensity of Mary’s charity, so her share in Christ’s Passion is also the most intense. St Francis, very much a man of his time, was deeply meditating upon the Passion of the Lord during his Little Fast, and, like Our Lady, he too came to share in the Crucified Lord’s sufferings, but in an unprecedented manner. For, as St Bonaventure recounts, “on a certain morning about the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross” in 1224, St Francis received the sacred stigmata – the physical wounds of Christ appeared on his own body. Francis “was overwhelmed and his whole body was flooded with a mixture of joy and sorrow. He rejoiced because of the gracious way Christ looked upon him … but the fact that he was fastened to a cross pierced his soul with a sword of compassionate sorrow.”
The month of September, therefore, invites us to deepen our devotion to the Holy Cross; to the precious wounds of Christ; and above all, through love for Christ Crucified, to share in the redemptive suffering of Christ even as Our Lady and St Francis did. The famous Sequence hymn for the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, the Stabat Mater, which is believed to be of Franciscan origin, thus says: “Virgin, of all virgins blest, listen to my fond request: let me share thy grief divine … Let me suffer the wounds of that cross, steeped in love of your Son.”
During September, then, let us pray the Stabat Mater at least every Friday. Looking at an image of the Crucifixion or holding a Crucifix, meditate on the text. Or do so while listening to a musical setting of the Sequence hymn: the version by Pergolesi is one of my favourites, and I remember it being beautifully sung in the Lady Chapel of London’s Rosary Shrine during last year’s Passiontide.
Additionally, I recommend the transcendent music of Sir James MacMillan whose magnificent Stabat Mater received its Vatican premiere in the Sistine Chapel in 2018; the recording of this occasion can be viewed on YouTube.
Thus, “fac me cruce custodiri morte Christi praemuniri confoveri gratia”: “Let me be shielded by the Cross, protected by Christ’s death, cherished by grace.”