The Patriarchs' Hope Fulfilled
The Station is held today at the church built c. 780 in honour of the martyr Apollinaris by Pope Adrian I on the ruins of an ancient Roman temple. The church was built in the vicinity of the Baths of Nero, hence its name. St Apollinaris was the first bishop of Ravenna, where an ancient basilica with beautiful mosaics is dedicated to him. The church is now in the care of Opus Dei, having been a Basilian monastery, a Jesuit institution and a chapel of the Hungaro-Germanic College at various times in its history.
"Abraham your father rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and is glad... before Abraham came to be, I AM" (Jn 8:56, 58).
Today's readings point to Jesus as the culmination of the Abrahamic covenant. Abraham, our "father in faith" (cf Roman Canon) finds the fulfillment of his hope and faith in God's promises in the Person of Jesus Christ who is thus the cause for Abraham's rejoicing. Indeed, using the quotation above, St Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae IIIa, 52, 5 says that the patriarchs (eg Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) were "blessed in their hope, although not yet perfectly blessed in actual fact" and that this hope in Christ's glorious coming and resurrection was "already a great source of joy for them." The author of the letter to the Hebrews makes reference to this blessedness, a foretaste of glory to come, at chapter 11, verse 13.
As such, today's readings point us to the fact that Christ is the hope of Israel, the One whom prophets and patriarchs desired to see, hear and touch, in a manner that we are privileged with in the Holy Eucharist. As the Lord says: "Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it and longed to hear what you hear, but did not hear it" (Mt 13:17). Therefore, John Cassian, the great teacher of monasticism explained that Moses and the patriarchs ardently desired and hoped "that the Lord might be openly manifested in the flesh, might openly appear to the world, openly be received up in glory; and that at last the saints might with their very bodily eyes see all those things which with spiritual sight they had foreseen."
St Thomas Aquinas builds on such Scriptural and Patristic foundations, from whence we arrive at his teaching on what has been called the Limbus Patrum, the 'Limbo of the Patriarchs' which is distinct from the more popular notion of Limbo, the Limbus Infantium. The latter has been increasingly placed at a distance by the Magisterium while the former is very much a part of Catholic theology. Also known as the 'Bosom of Abraham', the Limbus Patrum is the subject of iconography - the Harrowing of Hell - and also the subject of the theology of Holy Saturday - which has been the object of some discussion in my recent posts on Von Balthasar. The Second Reading in the Office of Readings for Holy Saturday has a particularly dramatic account of Christ descending into hell to free the patriarchs and righteous ones of old from the Limbus Patrum.
Hence, the Angelic Doctor explains in the Summa Theologiae:
"When Christ then descended into hell ('inferos') by the power of his passion, he released from their debt the saints who were held there, for it was [original sin] that excluded them from the life of glory and the vision of God's essence, or perfect human blessedness... The holy patriarchs were detained in hell because of the sin of the first man, which closed to them the entrance into the life of glory. By his descent into hell Christ delivered the holy patriarchs from it...Thus, in the Passiontide liturgy, the Church directs us to the fruits of the Lord's Passion and Cross which conquers death, breaks open the bars of hell and releases the holy ones. May it likewise release us from the snares of Enemy.
Faith in Christ has, even during their lifetime, delivered the holy patriarchs from all original and actual sin, as well as from the debt of punishment for their actual sins. They were not however excluded from the debt owing to original sin, which meant they were excluded from glory so long as the price of man's redemption remained unpaid...
Immediately after his death Christ's soul descended into hell, manifesting to the saints there the fruit of his passion. But they did not go forth from that place as long as Christ remained there; his very presence was part of the consummation of their glory."
May St Apollinaris and the Holy Patriarchs to pray for us, that we may join them and behold at last in eternity the Face of the One they longed for. May their joyful hope of salvation in Christ be ours today and always.
The mosaic above is from the 7th-century Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta on the island of Torcello near Venice and dates from the 12th century. It depicts the Bosom of Abraham and Our Lady interceding for all and it is part of a larger mosaic of the Universal Judgment, including the Harrowing of Hell.