A Bloody Cross, An Empty Tomb

Masaccio. "The Holy Trinity," 1425. Florence - Santa Maria Novella.

Masaccio. “The Holy Trinity,” 1425. Florence – Santa Maria Novella.

There’s this painting in this church in Italy of the crucified Christ. It’s big, it’s raised up high, and it’s painted in such a way that it looks dimensional – like an actual crucifixion is taking place within this church.

From where they’re standing, the viewer sees Christ. You see his father above him, and the Spirit between them. The Son is flanked by his mother and disciple, and two of the artist’s patrons. Despite the bizarre and gruesome way in which our Lord was killed, it’s a pretty ordinary scene, one depicted in many places and times.

But it’s what sits beneath it that’s particularly interesting: a skeleton. At eye-level, there’s a nearly life-sized depiction of a human skeleton, nestled beneath the crucified Christ. This anonymous body – meant to represent Adam, or the artist, or humanity, or the human condition, or whatever – lies in a tomb. Above him are the words, in Italian: I once was what you are and what I am you also will be.

It’s a momentus mori – a reminder of our mortality. This piece of art, the skeleton and his words in particular, is meant to remind us that someday, we’re all going to die.

Writing that sentence right now is sobering for me, even after over 40 days of Lent – a season that reminds us of our finitude, frailty, and desperation for grace. We live in a world and a time where even God once died. We’re all going to die too. Someday, I will die.

Let’s sit with that for a second.

This is a world where destruction, violence, exploitation, and death are so ingrained that we come to anticipate them. We invest time and resources to soften their blow. We do everything we can to delay death. But despite our policies, our policing, and our best intentions, we can’t seem to shake the darkness that continues to grip our world. Despite all of the amazing things that we’ve created, that skeleton’s words still ring in our ears – we’re not dead yet, but someday we will be.

So where does that leave us now?

From where I’m standing, I see only two options: you live, you die, and that’s it. Or, you live, you die, and you come back. As for the first option, we see it happen all the time – almost every story there’s ever been ends that way. I guess that only exacerbates the absurdity of our second option. This Christian hope is so frail, and so much is riding against it. But it might be all we have. And if it’s true – if that hope doesn’t fail us, but leads us back out of the grave – then it’s everything. It’s all that matters.

One night shortly after seeing the aforementioned painting for the first time, some friends and I were chatting, trying to unpack its meaning. A kind and wise friend of mine speculated: what if those seemingly bleak words weren’t spoken by that skeleton – what if they were spoken by Christ? What if they weren’t meant to be a reminder or ultimate mortality, but of ultimate life? I once was what you are  – mortal – but what I am – resurrected – you also will be.

Many days, more often than I’d like to admit, that’s all I have. That bloody cross and that empty tomb. They are all that matter. 

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