The Life We Hold
As we enter Holy Week, the small plaster replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta moves to the center of the kitchen table. It was a gift from my parents after one of their trips to Italy and over the years, has given me cause for reflection during this sacred season. “Pieta” means “pity” or “compassion.” I am struck once again. Who is the subject of this “compassion?” Mary? Jesus? Me?
It is all three; all of us are drawn into and part of the drama depicted here. All of humanity is being portrayed in this magnificent carving. And, if I am honest, the compassion of the scene is brought to full relief by the universality of our submission to all of life’s ups and downs and ultimately, to death itself. This is the reality of our life on Earth. And, there is full measure of pieta for us all. I look closely once again, turning the figurine in my hands, hoping to embrace more fully the truth of its story.
I am reminded of a moment when death sat in my lap.
Sculpted between 1498-1500, Michelangelo was only twenty-three when he chose a block of Carrara marble from which to “set free” the statue he envisioned. The pyramidal structure of Michelangelo’s Pieta is disproportionate. A full-sized corpus of Jesus is cradled in Mary’s voluminous robes. The disproportion between her lap and her head is obvious, and, for my Holy Week musings, decidedly intentional. At the apex of the pyramid, Mary’s face is serene and knowing but not anguished. We are caught here in a moment of acceptance; of realization of the reality without the full strength of its agonizing implication. Here, I am made aware of all the moments like this one that each of us experiences in any given day. The placid look of Mary’s visage tells most poignantly of her grace-filled submission to what is. I ponder my own feeble attempts to embrace all that “is” in a day. I ponder all of the small, and at times weighty, instances when I must choose to submit to the reality of the moment. How do I keep the disappointments and challenges of my life from etching my own face? How do I stem the furrows that would dig their anxious path into my once hope-filled brow? Those who have gone before encourage me to turn to prayer and meditation, praise and service to do battle with the temptation to refuse the holding moments of my day.
I am always struck by the volume of drapery that envelops Mary’s modest figure in this statue. I understand that Michelangelo intentionally created the space large enough to hold the full-sized corpus. What strikes me is that it appears that the expanse of Mary’s robes represents so much of all we hold in life. I am struck that each fold and crevice of Mary’s drapery envelops aspects of the life we lead on Earth, the moments in any given day when we encounter reality and are invited to choose to accept. There are gentle folds – carpool schedules, bills to be paid, ongoing concerns for aging parents, and young children. And there are deep cavernous hollows – the end of a marriage, the suffering of a handicapped relative, the despair of mental illness, the loss of a job. Mary holds them all. Moreover, she also holds my feeble attempts to reconcile with those I have injured, my lack of willpower and grace to withstand even minor temptations, my quick anger and forked tongue. She holds my deepest longings for wholeness and happiness for those I love, for an end to suffering and violence in my community, and for the triumph of justice and righteousness, especially in the deepest and darkest places on Earth. She holds my need for mercy and forgiveness; she holds all of that which each of us holds. And cradled in the center, she holds Death itself.
At the center of the sculpture is Jesus, fully human and completely dead. The care with which Michelangelo chose to depict our Lord is breathtaking–the perfectly-hewn muscles, the gentle tilt of his head, the dangle of his foot, his gently entwined fingers in her robe. He is not rigid; he has just passed through the veil. Here, we are made privy to a most private yet universal moment. I trace my finger over the corpus and pause to focus on Mary’s hands. Her right hand gently cradles her baby. It is not clenching or grasping for what no longer is; rather, it embraces, as only a parent can. Her left hand rests at her side, open and accepting. Mary holds God made fully human. And God-made-man is fully dead. She cradles the full weight and breadth of all we embrace every day, and the full knowledge of what we know to be our temporal end.
I am reminded of one moment when death sat in my lap. As a young mother, I had gone to the OB for a routine ultrasound. At fifteen weeks, the heartbeat already detected, I went confidently by myself to see our baby for the first time. After a few agonizing moments, it became evident that there was no longer a heartbeat. I remember with cruel clarity the seconds between when the technician left for the doctor and my worst fear was confirmed. There, in the base of my womb, was my lifeless child. Even now, the silhouetted image left on the screen is so vivid. Head bending forward on chest, the C-curve of the spine, compactness of the torso, I recall with great clarity thinking, “My child is Jesus taken from the Cross.” And for that brief instant, I too held death on my lap and accepted.
Michelangelo’s Pieta, if we allow it, invites us to look at all we hold in our little lives. It was the only work he ever signed. I would like to think that he desired not only the credit of his artistry, but wanted us all to know that he understood and embraced all the Pieta meant for him, and for us. I want to believe that he invited us all to realize and accept all the folds in our own robes; all that sits in our laps. During this Holy Week, we are invited to accept, to pause at the moment of full knowledge of all that we desire, and to gently cradle that which is most challenging, even Death. And, Michelangelo invites us to remain open to all that is still possible. For we do know as he did, that the Pieta is not the end of the story. Moreover, it is our faith-filled knowledge that gives us hope to believe that like Mary, we too shall stand with our Risen Lord. Then, all the folds of all we have held will fall from our weary laps and we will rise to behold Him in His glory.