On the south side of the city of Florence, on a hill across the river, is the basilica of San Miniato. From here you get the best view of the city, all laid out below. It is ironic that the best vista of the city whose name means ‘flourishing’ or ‘flowering’ is from a place dedicated to death. San Miniato is a large cemetery, not according to an English idea of what a cemetery should look like, but an Italian one: a hodge-podge of marble slabs and mausolea, with the faces of the dead peering out from every gravestone, above the shoulders of angels bending low over the tombs of children. It is, like most things in Florence, strangely beautiful, the sort of place where a picnic would not be in bad taste.
One tomb that stands out has life-sized marble statues of a young couple, Mario and Maria Mazzone. Mario is dressed in his soldier’s uniform, smiling broadly at his bride; and Maria, in her wedding dress with her hair like Rita Hayworth’s, looks to the side with the hint of a smile crossing her lips. The two figures are reaching out for each other with their hands just about to touch. They look like they are about to dance, but it is a moment frozen in time. But Mario and Maria both died young during the Second World War, and long ago they turned to ashes and dust.
The philosopher Gabriel Marcel says, To love someone is to say to them, ‘You will live forever’. On the face of it, it is a silly thing to say, because we will all die. But Marcel touches on something which is true of all genuine love – that love is forever, and that deep down none of us really thinks this is the end of the story. Otherwise, why would we bother to love? Why would we put up with heartache? But our poor love is not threatened so much by death. It is threatened by life – by our fickleness, by our fear to share in the works of God.
Life is not simply avoiding death. Life is not something we cling to, not something we can cling to. Instead, life is something we enter into – until life itself becomes natural and native to us. In Stanley Spencer’s painting The Resurrection in Cookham, the inhabitants of the graveyard in Spencer’s home village awake from death and emerge from their graves. The scene is one which is completely natural, with people yawning and stretching, and blinking in the bright sunshine as though they have just woken up. One woman gently brushes her husband’s jacket, the tenderness of their life together having continued beyond the grave into eternal life itself.
All of this is made possible by the Resurrection of Jesus. The Resurrection is a mystery hidden in God, and that is why Christian art never shows the moment of the Resurrection itself. Instead we depict the events after the Resurrection: the empty tomb, the stupefying of the guards, the vision of angels, the astonishment of the women disciples, the fear of the men disciples. And then we show the Risen Christ himself, held and touched by his followers, but unrestrained by them. Jesus risen from the dead has triumphed not only over death, but over life as well.
And we who live and die in Christ, hope to share in that same triumph – in Christ not simply overcoming death, but overcoming life as well, conquering our fear, to enter into life, where life and bliss will be natural and native to us. On that day the villagers of Cookham will emerge from their graves as though from sleep, and a young couple in Florence will finally join hands and dance.
‘For I know that my Redeemer liveth, and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God’. Alleluia!
And Peter opened his mouth and said: “You know the word which he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace by Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all),
the word which was proclaimed throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John preached:
how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.
And we are witnesses to all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree;
but God raised him on the third day and made him manifest;
not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
And he commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that he is the one ordained by God to be judge of the living and the dead.
To him all the prophets bear witness that every one who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.
For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.
When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Now on the first day of the week Mary Mag’dalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.
So she ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb.
They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first;
and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in.
Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying,
and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself.
Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed;
for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.
Scripture passage from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright 1989, 1993, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.