Thursday, June 29, 2017

Waiting in Joyful Hope Beneath the Sign of the Nativity

Like a mother, the Church walks with each of us on our earthly pilgrimage and when we die "she commits to the earth, in hope, the seed of the body that will rise in glory." (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo, October 25, 2016)

 A little over two years ago, as I walked from my father's grave, this profound truth was tangible as I dusted the dirt from my hands.

When I returned to the grave that afternoon, the freshly interred earth was covered with flowers, a beautiful reminder that the seed we had planted would be cultivated by the Lord and some day rise up before him when he returns in glory.

But soon the flowers faded, the grass grew back and, on some days, it was hard to remember where we my father was buried.  In fact, I'm sure that on a couple of occasions I may have prayed over the grave of his neighbor to the left or the right, having never had much of a cemeterial “geo-sense”.

So, in consultation with my mother and sister, I set out to erect a memorial grave stone on my father,’s grave, for the benefit of those of us who would someday rest here beside him in joyful hope.  It would not be about us (although dates of coming and going would be allowed) but would serve as a lasting testament of the Faith that would live on after our lips and our lives had gone silent.

Thus began a long survey of favorite images of the paschal mystery, of suffering, crucifixtion and empty tombs drawn from our long Christian iconographic tradition.  The search soon turned to the Nativity, the moment in which "for us men and our salvation" the Lord was incarnate of the Virgin Mary.  It seemed somehow appropriate that a reflection on birth might lead us to the sure and certain hope of eternal life in the city of the dead known as Saint John's Cemetery.

Mary has ever been a friend of the dying and those who mourn them.  She is the proto-mourner, standing with the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross.  Thus some of our earliest and most venerable prayers for the dying seek her intercession, like the Ave, begging her intercession "now and at the hour of our death."  Another such ancient prayer is preserved still in a hymn from the Roman Liturgy:

"Maria, Mater gratiae, Mater misericordiae, tu me ab hoste protege et hora mortis suscipe."  

"Mary, Mother of Grace, Mother of mercy, Shield me from the enemy and receive me at the hour of my death."

Which brings us back to the Birth of the Christ, who has wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature by humbling himself to Shaw in our humanity and thus restored even for the dead the hope of sharing in his divinity.  (cf. Roman Missal, Collect for Christmas Day)


Perhaps this vision of the Nativity of Christ has nowhere been more beautifully depicted than by the brilliant Giotto Di Berdone when ornamenting the Chapel of Our Lady of the Annunciation Chapel in memory of the deceased Padua banker, Enrico Scrovegni.  There, in 1305 he created a fresco of the Nativity like none before it.  

While incorporating all the traditional elements of Byzantine tradition and the Golden Legend, he gave a lively sense to the story of the birth of Christ, framed not by a cave, but in a rustic stable, as each of the figures appeared as real people, with character, personality and emotion.  At the center of this scene lies the virgin in garment of red (symbol of her humanity), and covered by a cloak of sky blue, symbol of the divinity she carried in her womb.  

According to the ancient apocrypha, the Christ child, newly washed and wrapped in swaddling cloths, is about handed to his blessed mother by the mid-wife. It is this moment which Giotto has captured with power and depth of feeling.  With the deepest tenderness the most blessed among women receives her Lord, accepts the swaddled infant Jesus into her embrace.  It is as if she receives this gift on behalf of a fallen humanity, and in her receiving the child, gives us the first taste of the eternal life he will bring.

Indeed, her receiving of the Christ is an imitation of the reception each of us so desire at the moment if our death, hoping that we will be received into the tender embrace of the son of Mary, when he returns to judge the living and the dead.

But how to turn a two dimensional fresco into a three dimensional funeral monument!?  So I turned to the good offices of Rohn Design: to Rolf and Renate and their master carver, Edmund Rabunser, who personally visited Padua once again to make a careful study of the Giotto fresco.

Over several months Edmund carefully crafted a scale model of the fresco in three dimensions.  The full round sculpture imagined the draping of the fabric of the Virgin's mantle, as well as innumerable other details needed for a three dimensional rendering of a two dimensional fresco.

Sadly, this beautiful wooden model was one of the last works to be completed by Edmund Rabanser, who died just before Christmas of 2016.

His work, however, was then taken up by highly skilled stone carvers in Carrara, Italy, where the wooden statue would become the model for an almost five foot sculpture in white Carrara marble, mounted on four slabs of pink marble into which is carved my parents’ names.



Just below the reproduction of Giotto's Virgin and Child is the ancient prayer described above.  It is the prayer of my father, who body waits in the ground beneath in hope of the coming of the Lord, and it will be the prayer of each one of us, as we are planted like seeds, awaiting in sure and certain hope the resurrection won for us by the Paschal dying and rising of her Son:


"Maria, Mater gratiae, Mater misericordiae, tu me ab hoste protege et hora mortis suscipe."