20 Apr 2009
12 Apr 2009
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 â€˜flourishingâ€™ or â€˜floweringâ€™ 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 soldierâ€™s uniform, smiling broadly at his bride; and Maria, in her wedding dress with her hair like Rita Hayworthâ€™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, â€˜You will live foreverâ€™. 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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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 â€“ until life itself becomes natural and native to us. In Stanley Spencerâ€™s painting The Resurrection in Cookham, the inhabitants of the graveyard in Spencerâ€™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 husbandâ€™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 â€“ 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.
â€˜For I know that my Redeemer liveth, and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see Godâ€™. Alleluia!