Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Everyone reading this particular verse from chapter 13 of St. Mark’s Gospel understands this to mean a reference to the End. Probably it is. But let me offer an alternative interpretation.

The depictions of the Crucifixion and Descent from the Cross in the early 14th century by artists like Giotto, the Lorenzetti brothers, and Cimabue (most of these highlighted in the “Lower Basilica” of San Francesco in Assisi, though more of Giotto’s are also in the “Arena Chapel” in Padua) show angels lamenting the sufferings and death of their Lord. Their sorrows are extraordinary, especially in the works by Cimabue and Pietro Lorenzetti. But why should they so lament, if the Lord was to rise again in three days? This is more than sorrow for the suffering; it is a hint that they did not know the future. [I owe this insight to Sr. Wendy Beckett.]

Where might these artists have come to such theological conclusions (if indeed they were their conclusions)? Perhaps it was from the sense shown us by some of the greatest theologians of the first centuries of the Church.

They suggested that the Incarnation and the Atonement were able to be “pulled off,” so to speak, because of the tremendous secret God kept hidden until the proper moment. From St. Ignatius of Antioch forward, this idea of the “hidden counsels of God” had great attraction. The notion was that if Satan had known what would happen to his realm after the Crucifixion, he would never have labored to see the Son of God slain. Melito of Sardis is especially attractive on this point in his celebrated “Homily on the Pasch.” In effect, Christ says to those ‘spirits and souls of the just’—“I made it; I’m here! Let’s go—the bars are smashed, the gates are open—we’re going home!” And if this is the case with the Atonement, then all the more would the devil have been dismayed by the fact of the Incarnation—another “well-kept secret,” according to St. Ignatius of Antioch. For after all, this was the beginning of the End, for him.

What an incredible thought—the ultimate “surprise re-birthday party” for us! And so, the words of Jesus quoted above refer to the end, after all: but a joyous beginning for us.

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