Feast Day: Bernard Mizeki
We Brothers are familiar with the story of Bernard Mizeki, because in many ways, he’s one of our own. Unfortunately, the all too brief hagiography of him in Lesser Feasts and Fasts, doesn’t do him justice. Nor does it do justice to reason why his shrine in Zimbabwe continues to attract thousands of pilgrims each year on his feast day.
But today, I don’t want to focus on the story of his martyrdom. I want to remember a part of his story, which is less familiar: the story of his baptism.
Writing from Cape Town on 9 March 1886, Father Puller says this:
We had a very happy day on Sunday. As … the Bishop gave us leave to baptize our [African] catechumens before the … chapel was formally opened and licensed.
Accordingly, we got the building ready and held the service on Sunday Evening….
The altar with its dossal and canopy and other sanctuary hangings looked very dignified and beautiful….
Our baptismal tank holds about 400 gallons of water….
Father Shepherd has been training a choir, and we came into the chapel in procession singing “As pants the hart for cooling streams.” … The Chapel was very full of people, although we had not given public notice of the service. The choir took their places on one side of the baptismal tank, and the seven catechumens in dark blue garments reaching to their feet … on the other side. Fraulein von Blomberg, as godmother, had a place beside them. Everyone was, I think, impressed by the great seriousness and earnestness of the catechumens.
I stood at one end of the tank with Father Shepherd on one side, and John James the catechist on the other.
Each catechumen renounced the devil looking westward, and confessed his faith looking eastward. Four of them made their answers in English, [and for] the other three [John James acted] as interpreter. After the interrogations were finished, I gave an address, … [with] John James interpreting. Then followed the baptisms. Each catechumen knelt in the water and was immersed three times. After each one had been baptized, I led him up the steps of the tank, and Father Shepherd covered him with a white mantle, and then John James led him into the dressing room to dry himself and change his garments. While the latter process was going on, we sang two baptismal hymns, … just as the second hymn was finished, the seven neophytes came back to their places in clean white suits. Then followed the signing with the cross, which I emphasized by putting round the neck of each one a copper cross, as a remembrance of the day. At the end of the service we sang in procession, “O Jesus I have promised, to serve thee to the end.”
The day ended up with a tea for the newly baptized. One of them certainly deserved his tea. They had all been exhorted to fast on the Saturday, but through a misunderstanding this one continued his fast all through Sunday, so that he had been nearly 48 hours without food.
One feels very thankful and at the same time anxious over these first-fruits. I feel morally certain that they are at present in real earnest; but one knows how anxious the devil will be to sow tares as soon as possible. I hope that in the intercessions … you will pray for their perseverance. The names given to them at baptism were: Thomas Masrai, John Ntinge, James Mpilele, Bernard Mizeki, Nicholas Kossana, Peter Paliso, Francis Maimbanini.
This letter of Father Puller’s is hugely significant on many levels. In terms of what we are commemorating today, it is significant because it reminds us that Bernard had discovered the good news that life is full of meaning in union with God. His martyrdom on this day 125 years ago was not a throwing away of his life, as some would imagine, but a complete giving of his life to the One to whom he had turned over his life that day in the baptismal tank at the old St. Philip’s. May we all have the courage to give our lives so totally to God, that even martyrdom is seen not a loss of life, but a winning of true life.
 Parish Magazine, Cowley St. John, May 1886, page 2 – 3
 SSJE, Rule of Life, The Word of God in Preaching, chapter 19, page 39
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