03 October 2013

Welcome, my sister death!

This evening I went to the Chiesa dei Santi XII Apostoli - the church of the Twelve Holy Apostles, where are buried Saints Philip and James the Less - (which is entrusted to the Order of Friars Minor, Conventual) for the celebration of Vespers and the Transitus.  The Transitus recalls Saint Francis of Assisi's embrace of "our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no living man can escape" (The Canticle of Brother Sun, 12).

They put up all the lights for Saint Francis of Assisi.

The observance of the death of Il Poverello took place in the midst of Evening Prayer, after the reading and before the Magnificat.  It consisted of a homily on the life of Saint Francis, a reading of the account of his death as recorded by Tomaso de Celano in his Second Life, which was interspersed with a few hymns and Psalm 142.  The following account was read for us:
Overcome by the grave illness that put an end to his suffering, he [Francis] had himself placed naked on the naked ground, so that in the final hour in which he was given to the enemy to be assailed, he could battle naked against his naked adversary....
The Saint then turned the palms of his hands towards heaven, magnifying his Christ who was allowing him to ascend to Him free of any burden.  And to show himself a true imitator of Christ, his God in all things, right to the end he loved the brothers and sons, whom he had loved from the beginning.
He summoned all the brothers who were present and with words of comfort to ease the pain they would feel over his death and with fatherly affection, he exhorted them to love God.  He spoke at length about patience and the observance of poverty, counseling the Holy Gospel above all other principles.  All the brothers surrounded him and, starting with his vicar, he stretched his right hand over them and laid his hand on the head of each one.  "Farewell, all my sons," he said.  "Live in the fear of God and remain with Him forever.  And since temptation will come and tribulation is already approaching, happy are those who persevere in the work they have begun.  As for me, I am hastening to God, to whose grace I entrust all of you."  Then he blessed the brothers who were present as well as all the ones spread throughout the world and those who would come after them until the end of time...

As the desolate brothers wept bitterly, the holy Father had some bread brought to him.  He blessed it, broke it and gave each one of them a piece to eat.  He also had them bring the book of the Gospel and asked them to read him the Gospel according to John, from the passage that starts: Before the feast of Passover, etc. [John 13:1].  He recalled the most holy last supper that the Lord celebrated with his disciples.  Indeed, he did all this to commemorate that venerable institution and to demonstrate the love that he bore for the brothers.
After that, the few days that remained until his death were spent by him in hymns of praise and he invited his most beloved companions to praise Christ together with him.  Then, singing as well as he could, he burst out with the Psalm that goes "With a loud voice I cry out to the Lord, with a loud voice I beseech the Lord" [Psalm 142:2].
With several verses that he had already composed on another occasion, he also summoned all creatures to praise God, urging them to love Him.  He even urged death, terrible and painful to everyone, to sing praise and, going happily to meet it, he received it like a welcome guest, saying, "Welcome, my sister death!"
...To the doctor, he said, "Come, brother doctor, go ahead and tell me that I'm near death, which will be like the door to life for me!"  To the brothers he said, "When you see that I'm about to pass away, place me naked on the ground, just as you saw me the day before yesterday, and once I'm dead, leave me lying there for the time it takes to walk a mile unhurriedly.
At last the final hour arrived in which, since all of Christ's mysteries had been accomplished in him, he blessedly ascended to God (Second Life, 214-216).
Francis faced his death without fear - going so far as even to welcome death - because he knew that he had already experienced the first death in the waters of baptism; what is more, he knew the power  of that death over him was already broken.  "We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death," writes Saint Paul, "so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life" (Romans 6:4).

We so often fear death either because we know that we are not living in a right relationship with God or because we forget that "if, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him" (Romans 6:8).

Saint Francis understand this well; he knew that having already died with Christ that the "second death" could do him no harm (The Canticle of Brother Sun, 13).  He wanted to pass quickly through the door to life, through Sister Bodily Death, to hasten to death, so as to be received by him who is Life (cf. John 14:6).

In our modern and enlightened era, it may seem an odd thing - even a bit morbid or macabre - to celebrate the death of a man.  It would seem an ever more bizarre thing for someone to say, "Welcome, sister death!"

As we celebrate that life - and the death - of Saint Francis of Assisi, let us ask him to intercede for us, to teach us to repent of our sins and to confess them so as to be reconciled with God, so that at the end of our earthly lives we, too, might exclaim, "Welcome, my sister death!"

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