Easter came too early this year. With a plague terrorizing the planet and most of the world in lockdown, the traditional day of celebrating new life felt more like a funeral.
We still went ahead with hiding candy for the kids under daffodil tufts, dipping hard-boiled eggs into dye baths of pink and purple, and dressing up in button-downs and yellow sweaters. We roasted a leg of lamb and even attempted via WhatsApp group calling to sit down with Enrico’s father and brother, quarantined in Milan for 35 days now, but the timing didn’t work out and we just ate alone.
A new ceremony was added this year. After the kids ate the ears off their chocolate bunnies, we set the laptop at the end of the table and turned on YouTube to see Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli singing live from the empty Duomo of Milan.
The broadcast begins with the camera panning over scenes of barren Milan, Paris, New York, and Bocelli’s voice speaks of hope as it if were something almost impossible to muster. In these once-vibrant cities, the only signs of life are a single car at a stop light or an only man riding a bike, and when I see a flock of birds flying off a roof in empty London, I want to cry.
The silent eye of the camera even hovers over Porta Ticinese in Milan, one of the city’s original gates which was a traffic nightmare, dangerous to walk through, always jammed with honking cars, screeching trams, and trucks spewing exhaust fumes. Now the only thing moving is a single tram inching through the silence, and my heart breaks for everything we have lost, even the things I didn’t want before.
We sit around the table watching scenes of Bocelli singing “Domine Deus” braided with images inside the majestic Duomo, so empty you can take in its gorgeous marble patterned floors, ornate crucifixes, and silver effigies of cardinals. The kids are goofing off, some of us are lulled into a trance, then — for a few seconds — the camera visits a statue of a skeletal man, every string of muscle in his arms popping out, every tendon, vein, and bone in his hands exposed. A figure from a horror movie, and I call out, “What was that?”
“What’s wrong with him?” Virginia says.
“What, who?” the kids ask.
St. Bartholomew the Flayed, one of the twelve apostles, was skinned alive. He is usually shown by medieval and Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, holding his limp skin including the face and hair, drooping and sad.
We are not used to this type of art in America. Art here seems to be about beauty, transcendence, serenity. Churches in Italy show paintings and mosaics and stained glass windows of saints being tortured, beheaded, and stabbed, or masses of believers being slaughtered and dumped in ditches, their skulls displayed in glass cases. When I see these gory images I am at once fascinated, ashamed to be fascinated, and shaken, returning to the images in dreams and day thoughts, trying to untangle what humans have done to each other, what horrors I have been spared.
A few summers ago we were touring a church in Puglia, when Luke who was 7 years old, dragged me over to an enormous painting of a woman with a bloody spot where a breast should have been, and a group of people about to cut off her other one.
“What’s happening?” he asked. I summoned Enrico for help, who knew right away, and with a matter-of-factness I couldn’t have called up, said in Italian, “That’s St. Agatha.” Agatha was a girl who vowed to stay a virgin and was punished by a Roman prefect when she refused to marry him.
I grew up in a culture where death is kept at a safe distance — something abstract that happens to plants or in nursing homes. We glorify youth and avoid aging. Ever striving to grow, renew, uplift.
My life in a way is a story of turning the other way — chasing parties, glitter, and beautiful distractions, or as I matured, seeking wholesomeness and light, productivity and feel-good philosophies.
But decay, dissolution, and death is an essential part of this universe, of being here. Denying this reality is like walking through life as a petulant toddler — grabbing this, rejecting that, throwing tantrums when we don’t get what we want.
The newspaper that thumps against our stoop every morning — one of the few things that enters from the outside world — functions like the art of old Europe. Pictures and stories show me miles of cars waiting for food bank hand-outs in San Antonio, dead bodies left in the street in overwhelmed Ecuador, thousands of gallons of milk once destined for schools being dumped into lagoons, millions of people laid off or not needed anymore as entire industries vanish, stampedes of thousands of Kenyans trampling each other for rations, convoys of Italian military trucks called to carry coffins away from overcome morgues.
And I am forced to sit in the pews, and watch. The lockdown keeps me from looking away and rushing off with all of my busyness. I must sit in this pool of sorrow.
But it’s OK. I am not ready for hope. I have protected myself for too long from suffering, of myself and others.
The pandemic has given me the gift of truth. We are all vulnerable and powerless over the things we try to run from — pain, sickness, disintegration. Accepting this truth and mourning the world’s losses is how I will find my way out into the light, like Bocelli who at the end of his lamentations walks down the aisle of the Duomo out onto the steps outside, and sings “Amazing Grace” to an empty square: “I was blind, but now I see.”
The Christian story of Easter is about death as much as it is about birth. Hope doesn’t have to be a happy band-aid — it can be the sun behind the clouds, the answers in the shadows, the tears that flow both for what is lost and what is found.
Italian churches are able to express all of this — the beauty and the horror, the sadness and the joy, the descent into purgatory and the re-emerging into the light of grace.
We will emerge from this tragedy one day. We will be able to leave our houses and meet again. We will laugh, hug, look into each other’s eyes from less than 6 feet away.
We will emerge, I imagine, emaciated and shaken, like Bartholomew the Flayed. Stripped of our outer layer, we will be tender. Hungry to be grateful. To love the rain that collects in puddles, the brown sparrows that peck at the dirt, the tiny flowers we once dismissed as weeds.