And they will sing while they dance” (Ps 87, 7)
The popular imagination, almost always childish, looks for a place, placing the saints in the immensity of the astronomical sky, or in the clouds above us. Theology tries to unravel the texts of the Apocalypse that makes them part of a heavenly court in perpetual session, incessantly acclaiming the Three-Time-Saint who presides over it from his glorious throne. Art makes use of all the resources of color, shapes and light to convey states of mind of ineffable happiness and, ultimately, the mystery of a blessed reality that breaks the barriers of our imagination.
Artists very often portray the lives of the saints in the context of the Last Judgment. Christ the Judge descends preceded by trumpeter angels at whose sound the tombs are opened, and the deceased leave to go, some – to the left of the Judge – to the torments of Hell; and those on the right, to be led to Glory by the angels.
The joyous gaze of Fra Angelico
The famous painter Fra Angelico (1395-1455), beatified by John Paul II in 1982 and declared the patron saint of artists in 2000, tackled the theme of the Last Judgment twice. One is the tempera painting in the Florentine Museum of San Marco, dated around 1430. The scene that interests us is a particular that is to the left of the viewer. In the middle of a splendid garden, Paradise, the newly resurrected blessed hold hands and dance in a circle around a kind of palm tree, which would symbolize the Tree of Life that Rev 2, 7 speaks of.
Far from the static representations of earlier times, the life of the blessed is expressed here in a dynamic way, making use of the most explicit human manifestation of joy and happiness, dance. And not an intimate dance in the style, for example, of the Muslim dervishes, but a group, community dance that spreads and multiplies the joy. This is how Fray Angélico captures with shapes and colors the announcement of Psalm 15: “…you will satisfy me with joy in your presence, with perpetual joy at your right hand”.
The “painter of celestial music” expresses here his vision of the Church: the Church of Heaven, certainly, that of the Saints with a capital; but, implicitly, also that of the militant Church, that of the Earth. Because the Church is one, the only bride of Christ, intimately united to him as his body. And that, and nothing else, is holiness. That is what we affirm when we profess that the Church is Holy.
Joy, emblem word of Pope Francis
That was the capital discovery of the 20th century; more specifically, the Second Vatican Council and its backbone, the Lumen Gentium constitution. It is now 60 years since that event, which on October 11th was celebrated with all solemnity in the Vatican Basilica, around the remains of John XXIII, transferred to the central nave of the temple.
In a memorable homily, Pope Francis recalled the importance of the event and urged to rediscover "the Council to give primacy back to God, to what is essential, to a Church that is mad with love for its Lord and for all men who He loves a Church that is rich in Jesus and poor in means.” To then translate love into terms of joy, because in the gaze of the Lord – said the Pontiff – the Church returns to find the lost joy. He was also hurt by the gossip and sectarianism that often occur in the Church, which denote a lack of joy, of love. And finally, the Pope concluded by sighing to “rediscover joy”, because “a Church that has lost joy has lost love”.
Francis recalled John XXIII's speech at the opening of the Council, which was commemorated on that day; a speech under the motto “Gaudet Mater Ecclesia”, “Mother Church rejoices”. And he made the application: “May joy live in the Church. If not, she contradicts herself, because she forgets the love that she has created for her. And yet, how many among us fail to live the faith with joy, without murmuring and without criticizing? A church in love with Jesus has no time for conflicts, poisons and polemics. God save us from being critical and impatient, bitter and angry. It is not only a question of style, but of love…”.
Our current Pope breathes through the wound, because later on he regrets again: “How many times have you preferred to be 'fans of your own group' rather than servants of all, progressives and conservatives, rather than brothers and sisters, 'on the right' or 'on the left'? More than of Jesus; erect themselves as 'custodians of the truth' or 'soloists of novelty', instead of recognizing themselves as humble and grateful children of holy Mother Church”.
It is not in Francisco a relief or a conjunctural issue. Four years ago he had already dedicated an entire apostolic exhortation to the theme of joy, with a more than significant title: “Gaudete et exsultate”, “Rejoice and exult”. There he had resorted to the concise and unappealable language of the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, where he states: “Being a Christian is «joy in the Holy Spirit» (Rom 14,17), because «the love of charity is necessarily followed by the joy, since every lover rejoices in union with the beloved […] Hence, the consequence of charity is joy» (nº 122).
The Church is not quantitatively measurable or reducible to statistics, nor is it identified with ideological positions. It is a transcendent reality that is embedded in the human and is formulated in terms of holiness, love and joy. That is what Fra Angelico painted and what we celebrate on All Saints' Day.
Universal vocation to joy
It was not just Fra Angelico. Western art often hints at the jubilation of the saints by depicting the Resurrection of Christ, outlining a dance step as he rises triumphantly from the shattered tomb. And, more recently, it has inspired artists such as Mark Dukes, who has illuminated the Episcopal parish dedicated to Saint Gregory of Nyssa, in the San Francisco Bay (California, United States).
This temple is dominated by a Risen Christ of almost four meters, a Christ who is dancing. Around Him, a huge icon of 90 more than life-size characters unfolds. They all hold hands and they all dance. Not all of them are Catholic saints: there are also, for example, Luther, Bartolomé de las Casas, César Chávez, Ana Frank, Desmond Tutu or Mahatma Gandi. They include artists, scientists, mystics, sinners... of all time. And there is no lack of animals, stars, suns... The entire creation and the whole of history are represented. Surrounded by this framework, the Church of the Earth gathers, singing and dancing. As the faithful dance around the altar, the saints dance in Heaven. Thus, the Glory of God is proclaimed, his holiness, which shines through in the life and history of men and their world.