April 30, 2020

Saint Cedd and the Yellow Plague

Saint Cedd was a missionary and Bishop of Essex who spread the Christian faith throughout England during the seventh century. He is commemorated on January 7.

In 658, Bishop Cedd was approached by King Aethelwald of Deira. Finding Cedd to be a good and wise man, he pressed upon him to accept a parcel of land at Lastingham in Yorkshire on which to build a monastery. Cedd eventually agreed, but would not lay the foundation stones until the place had first been cleansed through prayer and fasting. Cedd was the first Abbot of Lastingham and remained so while still administering to his flock in Essex.

In 664 Cedd was at Lastingham at a time that a great plague, known as the "Yellow Plague", was raging through the area. The King of Kent, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Rochester, Saint Tuda of Lindesfarne, and others, were among its victims. Both Saint Cedd and his brother, Cynebil, fell sick and, after placing Lastingham in the charge of their youngest brother, Chad, they died. Cedd was first buried in the open air, and his funeral was attended by some thirty monks from Bradwell, where he had established a monastery. Sadly, these thirty also contracted the plague and died, except for one young boy who miraculously survived. The Venerable Bede describes what took place as follows:

"When the brethren who were in his monastery, in the province of the East Saxons, heard that the bishop was dead in the province of the Northumbrians, about thirty men of that monastery came thither, being desirous either to live near the body of their father, if it should please God, or to die there and be buried. Being lovingly received by their brethren and fellow soldiers in Christ, all of them died there by the aforesaid pestilence, except one little boy, who was delivered from death by his father's prayers. For when he bad lived there a long time after, and applied himself to the reading of sacred Scripture, he was informed that he had not been regenerated by the water of baptism, and being then washed in the laver of salvation, he was afterwards promoted to the order of priesthood, and proved very useful to many in the church. I do not doubt that he was delivered at the point of death, as I have said, by the intercession of his father, whilst he was embracing his beloved corpse, that so he might himself avoid eternal death, and by teaching, exhibit the ministry of life and salvation to others of the brethren."

Bede presumed that Cedd knew the rest of the monks to have souls appropriately prepared for the afterlife, and that they would begin their time in paradise. Bede unraveled the mystery of the anomaly of this lone child, who would not have sins for which to atone, with the help of hindsight. Cedd, God, and the plague knew what earthly witnesses did not. The boy later discovered that he had not been properly baptized, and therefore his survival was a manifestation of Cedd’s wisdom and God’s mercy. He survived in order, by God's design, to bring others to salvation when he would later become a priest.