Feast of friends
Red sunsets are not an everyday phenomenon, at least not in Benvolio’s book. He supposes they occur only at certain times in the calendar. For instance, that Saint John’s feast, the 27th of December, the third day of Christmas 2013.
That date, the horizon bled at dusk. Countless florid shades hung as one like a master weaver’s curtain over the far west where from his vantage point, Benvolio could not tell if the sea played or lay asleep.
He had a knack for spotting cords that bound together the palpable world and the rich unseen universe of thought. Before long, he concluded that the red evening twilight which made fine silhouettes of the mangroves of Tuburan town anticipated the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents (cf. Mattew 2:13-18), commemorated the next day, the fourth of Christmas 2013.
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But what did the crimson sunset have to do with the memorial of Saint John the Evangelist, patron of friendships? Earlier Benvolio had gone through a four-hour bus ride that took him from Cebu’s east coast and across the hills to the spring-slaked seaside valley northwest, where 17 of his brothers in the faith from the world over stayed.
They were winding up playing soccer when he came. After they washed up and he had caught his breath they went to the kitchen where he and cooking enthusiasts in the party prepared lunch: steamed rice, fried mackerel, grilled squid, raw squid salad and mixed vegetables stewed in coconut milk.
Dishes simmering and over a bowl of peas, peanuts and corn grits, Benvolio chatted with Jim, a Scottish physician and cleric who had authored books and led symposia about moral issues from pornography to natural family planning. He met John, a Singaporean who came over to experience Catholic life in community. Over lunch, Benvolio reminisced with Australian missionary brothers Francis and Daniel the winter days that he spent with them down under.
In the afternoon, they went out to sea aboard a kayak, a motor boat, a banca and a bouncing banana boat. The tide was just coming in so they had to put out farther to get to the deep. There the sea bordered on wild and they had a grand time splashing in and laughing with the waves that caught a million suns.
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Past supper at a restaurant in town, they spanned a hundred-meter footbridge from shore and assembled by the moonlight in a thatched-roof gazebo on stilts. There, Francis retold the story of the young Jeremiah, who found the will to embrace the call to prophesy after all his excuses for fleeing it melted away in prayer.
Francis shared his own story, too. It was a story of twice picking a girl over or together with God, of twice discovering (with the girls), that God led him elsewhere and of experiencing the incomparable beauty of surrendering oneself to the Lord. Benvolio noted how Francis’ story paralleled that of Saint John, who according to tradition, thrice happily stood on the verge of getting married, save that Christ on each occasion drew him to himself with joy beyond compare.
Francis gave each of his brothers a torch. “Let these symbolize your openness to God,” he said. They processed on the bridge, pausing to listen to some brothers testify about the merciful interventions of God in their individual lives, families and work.
When they reached the shore, they sat around a bonfire that they started with the fire of 18 torches. They spoke of faith and hope and love and all things that endure. They spoke of how this time of gizmo tablets and banana boats call for men to take courage and bear the light of Christ to the world. Francis urged his brothers to be Christ’s men, wherever life may take them.
Tiny sparks leapt like fireflies from the crackling flames. Benvolio tailed them with his gaze and looked at the heavens. A ring, white at first, rainbow-flecked later, encircled the moon. Against the swishing surf, he remembered fisherman Saint John’s lyrics early in the Fourth Gospel about light, light from God’s own life, light that shines in darkness, light that darkness could not overcome. (John 1:4-5)
Benvolio easily attributed the events of the day to the saint’s predilection for friendships, those relationships without which, Aristotle said, a man would refuse to live, though he had all goods. After some time, Benvolio also found the link between the blood-colored sunset and the friendship saint’s feast: The fourth evangelist alone recorded that Christ said, “The greatest love a man can have is to lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)