One of my favourite poems by John Donne, begins the third verse:
I have a sin of fear…
I hope it is not inappropriate to admit that as I shut the church door on Mothering Sunday 2020, I was afraid.
St Mark, has the oddest ending to his Gospel “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Something very similar happens in today’s Gospel reading from John.
“Then the disciples went away again unto their own home. But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping.”
went away again unto their own home!
Are there any Italians in the House?
What did you celebrate last Thursday, on 25 March?
Yes, the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante in 1321.
His most extraordinary work, The Divine Comedy, marks one of the great shifts in European literature. This epic poem, composed over several years from 1307, could be said to have shaped the modern world.
It covers the span of a single weekend. Not any weekend, but Good Friday to Easter Day 1300.
Dante quite literally goes, as the phrase says, “to hell and back.” Dante travels through the nine circles of hell Inferno, to its very pit. He climbs from there, encouraged by the sight of the stars that he can see in the distant heavens, up the Mountain of Purgatory and then to Paradiso itself. The work is a combination of references to classical literature, contemporary politics and reflection upon the path to salvation. Not forgetting a range contemporary scandals. He sees two Popes is in one of the lowest circles of hell, Nicholas III (d 1280) & Boniface VIII (d. 1303!). Dante’s Easter journey, down, so that he might rise, is the journey of the poet’s soul, mirroring Christ’s.
We have left Mary Magdalene at the tomb.
The earthly events following Jesus’s death, on Good Friday are very hurried. Jesus dies, the Sabbath is falling. His body must be buried, out of the way before dusk, the Passover celebrations and the curfew.
The Sabbath stands for the very first Sabbath, the seventh day of creation – God’s day of rest.
On Friday, Jesus cries out “It is finished.” It is clear from the start of John’s Gospel that John means to revisit the work of creation. The crucifixion takes place on the sixth day, from that moment, God’s work of re-creation is complete.
As scrabbling, by bit-part-players takes over in the Gospel narrative, the seventh day is beginning. God will rest in the tomb.
Like Mary, we have a text from Isaiah ringing in our ears
And he will destroy the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces.
The Sabbath rest is over.
When the men have gone – to their homes – Mary looks in. It is the holy of holies. The two angels are the proof that the mercy seat is there, that only the high priest would visit once a year. “Why are you weeping?” they ask. She does not know where they have laid him.
Outside, a stranger, “Why are you weeping?”
She realises she is in the holy of holies, which was Eden: this might be Adam – the gardener. The only other alternative is that it is God himself who walked in the garden in the cool of the day. In fact, we know He is both. When he names her, as Adam named the creatures in Eden, she is reborn. Significantly, He does not come from the tomb. There is no account of his rising. The tomb is as redundant as the burial clothes. The door is open, its purpose complete.
As Dante has descended into hell, he has found Jesus’s death had shattered the very base of hell too. Sleeping in death, death was swallowed up. It is all as Isaiah foresaw. He saw too the wiping of tears from all faces. Mary, weeping at the tomb has her tears wiped away, and her soul recast. The primordial place is sanctified.
Fear, fear, fear, the memory with which we began, and which has done its best in the last year to take hold of us, is done away.
Like Dante, climbing towards paradise, guided by and enlightened by the stars we might say:
“O grace abounding and allowing me to dare
to fix my gaze on the Eternal Light,
so deep my vision was consumed in it!
I saw how it contains within its depths
all things bound in a single book by love
of which creation is the scattered leaves:
how substance, accident, and their relation
were fused in such a way that what I now
describe is but a glimmer of that Light.”
(from Canto 33:82 John Ciandi translation)
Or, like John Donne, another poet of the soul’s ascent to God through love, riffing on his own name – Donne:
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.