Saturday, April 3, 2010

St. Benedict the African (1526-1589)

Benedict held important posts in the Franciscan Order and gracefully adjusted to other work when his terms of office were up. His parents were slaves brought from Africa to Messina, Sicily. Freed at 18, Benedict did farm work for a wage and soon saved enough to buy a pair of oxen. He was very proud of those animals. In time he joined a group of hermits around Palermo and was eventually recognized as their leader. Because these hermits followed the Rule of St. Francis, Pope Pius IV ordered them to join the First Order. Benedict was eventually novice master and then guardian of the friars in Palermo— positions rarely held in those days by a brother. In fact, Benedict was forced to accept his election as guardian. And when his term ended he happily returned to his work in the friary kitchen. Benedict corrected the friars with humility and charity. Once he corrected a novice and assigned him a penance only to learn that the novice was not the guilty party. Benedict immediately knelt down before the novice and asked his pardon. In later life Benedict was not possessive of the few things he used. He never referred to them as "mine" but always called them "ours." His gifts for prayer and the guidance of souls earned him throughout Sicily a reputation for holiness. Following the example of St. Francis, Benedict kept seven 40-day fasts throughout the year; he also slept only a few hours each night. After Benedict’s death, King Philip III of Spain paid for a special tomb for this holy friar. Canonized in 1807, he is honoured as a patron saint by African-Americans.

For Holy Saturday morning, let us consider The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint John (19.38~42), the account of the Burial of Jesus

(After Jesus had died) Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate's permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus' body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no-one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was near by, they laid Jesus there.

Christ in death
(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

This day, the day following the death of Jesus Christ, was the Sabbath, a great day of rest. Christ died on the Friday afternoon, just as the Vigil of the Sabbath was approaching. His body lay in the tomb during the whole of the Sabbath rest and he rose soon after that Sabbath day had ended — in the early hours of the first day of the new week. He died towards the end of the first day, lay in the tomb during the whole of the second day and rose very early on the third day. In his account, St John tells us that on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene arrived while it was still dark — obviously arriving as soon as she could with the Sabbath Day now over — and the stone had been removed. Christ had already risen. So it is especially on the Saturday, the Sabbath day of repose, that we celebrate the period in death of Jesus Christ. He remained in the abode of the dead. It is surely a great mystery, this repose in death of God the Son made man. He shared mankind’s descent into the state of death, which of course, as with every other human being did not involve extinction but a passing in his spirit from the scene of this earthly life. In his humanity he continued to live in his spirit, of course, but in what we might call a Limbo, where the other just souls awaited the opening of the gates of heaven. Consider who were there, and who received him. Moses and Elijah had spoken to him when he was transfigured in glory on the Mount not long before his Passion. They would have received him. So would Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the patriarchs and prophets, David and those good kings who succeeded him, and others such as Simeon and Anna the prophetess who had hailed his arrival as an infant over three decades before. John the Baptist awaited him. His beloved foster-father Joseph, the husband of his most holy mother, received him. So did Anna and Joachim, traditionally considered the parents of Mary. Imagine his meeting with the holy Joseph! He had daily lived and worked with Joseph during all those years at Nazareth. He had been at Joseph’s death in their house at Nazareth, and he and his mother had accompanied the body of Joseph to its burial outside the village of Nazareth.

There would surely have been others among the just in the abode of the dead, others beyond the pale of the chosen people of God. We read of upright men and women among the peoples. For instance, we may think of those good and conscientious Wise Men from the East who had come to honour the infant King. They had been led by a heavenly star — some form of natural revelation — from their own culture and wisdom to an encounter with the King of kings. Were they not representative of very many others of various nations whom God in his goodness led in diverse ways along the path of a good life? Surely so. There were those who conscientiously did good work for mankind, even if they failed in this or that respect along the road of moral goodness. Let us think of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle — may we not think of them as having sought the light and in some measure attained it, endeavouring in the process to be virtuous? We cannot tell how God judged them, but we may be sure that God was working for the salvation of all his children, and that in the event he was a God of mercy and compassion. Let us imagine the acclaim and joy that flooded the place of Limbo to which Christ in death descended on that Sabbath day following his death at Calvary. The field had been won. All that now remained was for him to rise from death and ascend into heaven, and they too would rise with him and ascend to heaven in their spirits. Their Champion had won. The bonds of sin had been broken, and Satan had been left confounded. Imagine Christ in the abode of the dead, among the good and holy souls from God’s chosen people and beyond, who by the aid of God had not died in deliberate, unrepented mortal sin. May we not imagine this day, the day of Christ in death, as the day of joy in Limbo when those there had the privilege of personal contact in their spirits with their divine Brother and Redeemer? We are speculating, but Christ did descend to the dead, and what awaited him there? Obviously, those who also were in the abode of the dead, but who lived in God, awaiting the work of the Redeemer to be accomplished. To them the good news was announced.

On this side of the grave, all was quiet and in gloom for the disciples of Christ. Except for his holy mother, they all seemed to have completely forgotten his solemn predictions that he would rise from the dead on the third day. It was a day of gloom and inactivity. The Light of the world had been snuffed out, and Life was now lifeless. It seemed that Death had had the final say, and that sin had conquered. But no. All was quiet, but a mighty unseen fount of life was preparing to burst forth, a Fount that would never cease to bring life to all. Let us marvel at the mystery of our Redemption, and understand that in Christ is to be found every heavenly blessing.

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