Yesterday we disembarked from the train and rolled our luggage to a water taxi. Soon we were motoring up the Grand Canal, gaping at palaces that tilted into the waters. Venice is like a dowager queen, with lacy white stone and red tile roofs, the blues of the sea at her feet and the blues of the sky her crown. Everywhere the domes of her churches proclaim her Christian past and hopeful present, and on Ascension Sunday the bells ring with great glee. She is on the historic borderland of East and West, and she remains a lighthouse to Christendom, calling the faithful to remember, to repent, to come home, to return to God.
Venice still celebrates her marriage to the sea on Ascension Day with a regatta of gondolas, a band, flags, all heading out to the Lido Island, where the mayor casts a wedding ring into the sea. This year they celebrated on Sunday and we watched from our attic window the flotilla of boats pass by.
But the true celebration was at the Basilica of Saint Mark, San Marco, to give thanks to God for the Ascension of Christ to Heaven. And this gilded Byzantine church, to my mind, is one of the most beautiful in the world.
We entered Saint Mark’s through the north door. The service was beginning, and we found seats toward the front, then looked about, having fallen into a world of golden vaults.
They say Venice was founded on March 25, 491 AD, the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Goths drove the Venets offshore. By the eighth century, the settlement of marshy islands was taking shape, and Venice, protected by the sea, grew into a flourishing port, surviving attacks from both east and west. A crossroads of the Crusades, Venice collected treasure from eastern capitals: San Marco’s bronze horses came from Byzantium as well as icons, sculptures, and relics. In the thirteenth century the Venetian merchant Marco Polo, returning from China, opened trade routes of goods and ideas that placed Venice in the center of a new era of discovery. The city gloried in its wealth, stunning the world with art and music.
Venice’s original patron saint, the eastern martyr Theodorus, was replaced by the Western evangelist Saint Mark, who traveled with Paul and assisted Peter in Rome; his Gospel is thought to be based on Peter’s sermons. After Peter’s death, he became Bishop of Alexandria, where he was martyred.
When Venice “rescued” Mark’s relics from Alexandria and entombed them in the doge’s chapel, the city adopted the saint’s lion symbol, the winged lion. The lion was derived from Mark’s identification as the first of “the four living creatures” in the Book of Revelation, Saint John’s vision of the Apocalypse. As John relates in this last book of the New Testament, an Angel of the Lord appeared to him on the island of Patmos off the coast of Turkey and showed him a lion, a calf, a man, and an eagle, images thought to represent the four Evangelists.
The doge’s chapel evolved into the Basilica di San Marco, its walls covered with precious stones from the East… San Marco fused the East with the West, the Byzantine with the Romanesque. Three naves formed the three arms of the Greek-cross plan, and the chancel and high altar, partially hidden by an iconostasis, became the fourth arm. Five domes vaulted the three naves, the chancel, and the transept midpoint, all glittering with golden mosaics…
The mosaics covering the domes told the ancient stories of salvation, and here, in these glittering tiles, suffering was made beautiful. Poverty and hunger, trial, torture, and brutal death—physical defeats redeemed by God—were transfigured into grace and victory. Across one dome, Christ, in vivid robes, rode a white donkey; the saints glowed in jeweled tones.
We sat on canvas chairs over sinking paving stones, riding the Venetian waters in an ancient ark protecting centuries of the faithful, the Communion of Saints. We sang Alleluia and I prayed that I too could ascend into God’s glory, that I with my silly sufferings, my earthy darkness, my mysterious demons, I could emerge from the watery world of earth and sea and fly with the angels, that I could be forgiven my sins, trapped as I was in my prison of self…
from Pilgrimage (OakTara, 2007)
Today we entered San Marco and sat on canvas chairs and stared at the golden domes dancing over us. Once again I was struck by the church as an ark, particularly in Venice where the waters are indeed rising. But the ark of the Church sails on, touching heaven with its golden domes, carrying its precious cargo, the faithful, Christ’s body, kneeling before the tabernacle holding Christ’s body. Today, as the choir sang Alleluia from a chancel balcony and incense billowed over the high altar, I was grateful for this moment of exquisite beauty, looking beyond the suspended sanctus lamp to the crucifix with the crosses at the end of each arm, to the apsidal fresco of Christ the King. For we follow the light in the lamp for good reason. We follow it to the Cross of Christ Crucified, and through the Cross arrive at the foot of Christ the King of Glory.
The celebration of the Ascension of Our Lord announces the glorious certainty that we, as members of Christ’s body, ascend with him. Through humility and suffering, Almighty God has made this possible by becoming one of us, one with us. We make this possible by partaking of his sacraments, so that we become one with him. Ascension bridges Heaven and earth, God and man, completing the great arcing act of salvation begun when Noah rode the rising flood waters so long ago.
On the way out, we paused in a side chapel and said a short Angelus, Hail Mary…, contemplating the haunting medieval Madonna of Nicopeia and giving thanks that Mary said yes to God, allowing all this to happen.