This early XIX Century angel watched over a grave in Wales which was accidentally broken during works to the Churchyard. It serves as an introduction to this extract from the City of God by the Bishop of Hippo, Saint Augustine. He is writing as the Roman Empire is collapsing across Europe and the Mediterranean, including his native North Africa. There is much violence and bodies of the dead lie unburied, much to the distress of his people. But God can and will restore and reunite soul and body, however broken, scattered and desecrated the latter may have been.
Before turning to Augustine, let’s pray for all those buried in Saint Tydfil’s churchyard, and all buried without a marker, even without a mourner. Augustine begins his reflection with the story of Dives and Lazarus from Luke 16.
His crowd of domestics furnished the purple-clad Dives with a funeral gorgeous in the eye of man; but in the sight of God that was a more sumptuous funeral which the ulcerous pauper received at the hands of the angels, who did not carry him out to a marble tomb, but bore him aloft to Abraham’s bosom.
The men against whom I have undertaken to defend the city of God laugh at all this. But even their own philosophers have despised a careful burial; and often whole armies have fought and fallen for their earthly country without caring to inquire whether they would be left exposed on the field of battle, or become the food of wild beasts. Of this noble disregard of entombment poetry has well said: “He who has no tomb has the sky for his vault.” How much less ought they to insult over the unburied bodies of Christians, to whom it has been promised that the flesh itself shall be restored, and the body formed anew, all the members of it being gathered not only from the earth, but from the most secret recesses of any other of the elements in which the dead bodies of men have lain hid!
From “City of God: 1:12 by Saint Augustine, via Kindle.
The artists of Strasbourg Cathedral certainly believed that, ‘He descended into Hell, on the Third Day he rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father from whence he shall judge the living and the dead’. Here it is, the harrowing of Hell, and our first parents the first to be rescued, blessed with beautiful, renewed bodies; a powerful envisioning of the threshold of eternal life.
Perhaps we find it harder to imagine that moment than our forebears did, but perhaps we should go past the abstract in thinking about eternity. There is still room in this brave new world for Christ to lead Adam by the hand, physically; and for Adam to half turn to his wife, to hold her hand, and feel her physical arm encircling his back. They are just as human, and more so, than when they first lived upon earth. And so will we be transformed.