Life is Beautiful
a sermon by
R. Charles Grant, D.Min.
Bon Air Presbyterian Church - Richmond, Virginia
Easter April 4, 1999
Life is Beautiful, the big winner in last weeks Academy Awards presentations, is a romantic comedy about the Holocaust. Made by Italy's comic sensation Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful is a truly powerful film that manages to entertain, educate, and inspire with its combination of humor, poignancy, and dignity. Guido (Benigni) is a happy-go-lucky buffoon roaming through the countryside of fascist Italy in 1939. He meets and is smitten by a beautiful schoolteacher named Dora. The two fall in love, get married, and have a son they name Joshua. For them life is beautiful.
Until without warning, Guido and his family are taken into custody and shipped off to a concentration camp. Upon arrival, the women and men are separated, leaving Guido to look after Joshua, and Dora to fend for herself. As Dora struggles on in the vain hope of being given the chance to see her husband and son again, Guido attempts to shelter his son from the horrors of the concentration camp's reality by creating the illusion that it is all an elaborate game. A game in which points are collected for various activities (such as staying hidden, following orders, or maintaining silence), and the first person to collect 1000 points wins a tank. At first, it is easy to divert his son's attention from the misery around them, but as the conditions at the camp progressively worsen, Guido finds it increasingly difficult to maintain the illusion. But maintain the illusion Guido does, for the sake of his son, even when it costs him his own life. In one sense, the film is more than a comedy about the Holocaust; it is a film about one man's insistent and persistent belief that life is beautiful.
Life is beautiful. And God saw everything that God had made and declared that creation was good, very good, beautifully good. That is the vision of Biblical faith. But it is a vision that is hard to maintain. It is a vision that needs constant attention.
For the images which flash before our eyes challenge the conviction that life is beautiful. The killing in Kosovo continues, the killing escalates, the bloodshed abounds, refugees fleeing. And Kosovo is only the lead story on the evening news. Wars and political and ethnic turmoil continue on page two, followed by famine, family strife, urban decay, and natural disasters. And on a more personal level, our souls are troubled, our spirits weary, our hope is faint, our confidence is tenuous, our families stumble under the stresses of modern living. What we see, what we feel, what invades our lives at every turn, is that life is far from beautiful. Life is ugly, life is depressing, life is BROKEN.
Which brings us to the women at the tomb on the first Easter morn. For them life HAD been beautiful. They had shared it with Jesus. They had found a new vision for their tired eyes. They had found comfort for their troubled souls, hope in the face of oppression, acceptance in a world in which from birth to death they lived as second class citizens. In Jesus they had found new life. Beautiful new life.
But all of that died with their dear friend on Good Friday. Everything was lost. Their companions, who two days before had deserted Jesus in his time of need, had now deserted them as well. They had nothing left except to reverentially anoint the body of their fallen friend and teacher.
Then God acted and Christ was risen and once again, once again for all time, the word went out: Life is beautiful after all! For Christ is risen!
Christ is risen! The tomb is empty! By itself, the empty tomb" means nothing (cf Patte). Indeed, for modern men and women the claim of an empty tomb is more troubling and confusing than it is comforting and enlightening. No, the sheer EMPTINESS of the tomb meant nothing. What was important then and now is why the tomb was empty. The faith of Easter is that the tomb was empty because Jesus lives and Jesus is Lord! As the messenger of God told the women: "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised Go quickly and tell his disciples and he is going ahead of you to Galilee."
Jesus is risen! The cause of Jesus continues. (cf Marxsen) What Jesus stood for has been validated. What Jesus stands for endures. What Jesus taught and the way he lived paves the way for why we can live and how we should live. As NT scholar Marcus Borg has said, "The one who lived among us as a God-intoxicated Galilean peasant healer, wisdom teacher and social prophet not only lives BUT IS LORD. Easter is Gods yes to Jesus the affirmation that he is the decisive disclosure of what God is like, and of the life which is full of God." (LP 7:1:17)
According to Borg, there are two meaningful truths of Easter: The first is that Jesus IS risen. Jesus is a figure of the present, not just the past. In his teachings, and in the memories and lives of his followers, Jesus lives! Deep spiritual realities are available to those who turn to him. New life abounds in the church, the community gathered in Jesus name. Powerful hope, hope even in the face of death, powerful hope ESPECIALLY in the face of death, illumines life, shattering the darkness of death. Jesus is risen! Life is beautiful!
Jesus is risen. Jesus lives. And Jesus is Lord. As God looked over the creation and pronounced that all of creation is good, God gazes upon the man we call Gods Son and declares, "This man is good, very good. This man is the best. Jesus IS the way, the truth, and the life. Listen to him!" Easter has a claim on us, a claim that arises from the powerful presence of Jesus. We are called to follow and do for others what the Lord has done for us. Go quickly and tell his disciples [that] he is going ahead of you to Galilee, the angel said. Jesus is alive and well in Galilee, Jesus is alive and well in the market place, in the homes of his friends, and wherever those whom he calls his own are to be found. Jesus is alive among those who are poor in material goods and those who know they are poor in spirit. Jesus is alive with the downcast and the outcast. Jesus is alive and well among those who find God in him.
Jesus lives! Jesus is Lord! The life extended to us is a life extended to all who turn to God the Father of Jesus. And if we would claim the beauty of Easter of ourselves, we must be prepared to share it with others. As liberation theologian Dorothee Soelle wrote in The strength of the Weak, "We cannot believe in resurrection for some but not for others. It is an all-inclusive symbol of life for everyone " (Ibid. 31) The new life extended to us is robbed of its power if it does not mean so much to us that we want to bring it to all who want and need new life.
At the end of the film Life is Beautiful, the prison camp is thrown into turmoil. As the liberating allies approach, the guards attempt to kill the remaining prisoners and destroy evidence of the camps deadly mission. Guido tells Joshua to hide in a metal box until everything is totally quiet. When menacing guards approach the box, Guido distracts the guards from Joshua. Guido led away and shot. Confusion follows before finally there is silence. Only then does Joshua, whose name means "God saves" and is the Hebrew form of Jesus name, emerge from his tomb-like box. The liberating allied soldiers rescue him. Reunited with his mother, joyous little Joshua arises to live his own beautiful life. The film concludes with Joshuas testimony: "This is the story of the sacrifice my father made for me. The gift of life he gave me.
In Jesus, Christ crucified, we have the story of the sacrifice God our Father made for us.
In Jesus, Christ arisen, we have the gift of life God gives us.
Now, let us claim and proclaim the good news! Christ is risen! Life is beautiful! AMEN.
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