Sunday, May 5, 2013

beauty entering into reality

6th Sunday of Easter C
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas
5 May 2013
Daily Readings

Every once in awhile, I'll get a question about why the Church needs beautiful things.  Jesus was poor.  He had no temporal power or wealth.  He did not have expensive things.  Would he want expensive Churches?  Does he need beautiful Churches? If not, then why do we have them?  Why does the Church need St. Peter's Basilica?  Many have been enthralled with our new Pope Francis eschewing some of the peripheries that come with the papacy.  Taking after his namesake, Pope Francis is showing us that great joy comes through simplicity and poverty.  Which is all good and an important part of the fullness of truth.

Other times, however, I get just the opposite comment.  People crave beauty. People desire to be beautiful.  When a bride gets married, she wants a beautiful Church in which to celebrate the beauty of the moment.  When I pray, I yearn to pray in a beautiful place, like St. Lawrence.  This beautiful chapel in which we pray tonight changed my life, and I'm not sure I could say I would be a priest if this church was not beautiful.  I am sure I would not be a priest if the prayer and liturgy here was anything less than breathtakingly beautiful.  On the one hand, people say beauty is an unnecessary escape from reality, even the opposite of the real world. Some would put beauty low on the list of essentials. Some people want more beautiful homes and secular buildings than churches.  On the other hand, people crave beauty and the desire to be beautiful is inescapable.  Churches have always been built to enter more deeply into the human experience, especially the experience of beauty.

Beauty is not just for the rich, either.  It's not just for those who can afford it.  It can be argued that the poor need beauty as much as they need food and water.  Perhaps food is more immediate, but being human and becoming human depends on the essential nourishment of the human soul.  If the soul of any human person, rich or poor, is not fed by the transcendentals of goodness, truth, love, unity and beauty, that soul will cease to be human.  I'm arguing here that beauty is not dispensable for anyone.

Catholic Churches then, are supposed to be sacraments of the heavenly Jerusalem that we hear described with such utter beauty in the book of Revelation.  It is a city born from heaven, and is not an escape from the created world or material reality or the human condition, but is a city that represents the world fully redeemed and made new.  Lest we lose a vision of what the world is supposed to be like, we are to continually visit our Churches, which are supposed to be our best guess at what the new Jerusalem will be, and what the destiny of the world looks like. Our Churches are nothing less than previews of what a world that is fully the dwelling place of God would look like.  And of course, Churches are at their most beautiful when they are filled with people yearning for transcendent beauty.  No, God does not need beautiful Churches.  He has no problem with vision or imagination.  But we do.  We need beautiful Churches for our hope to be sustained.  We need beautiful and sacred spaces to be human.

Jesus assures us in the Gospel as well that his Ascension to the Father is no escape from the world, but is entering more deeply into reality.  No, after taking a redeemed humanity with him to heaven, as a gift for his Father, Jesus promises us a greater gift; namely, that he will visit us and be with us and make his home with us in an even more perfect way through the gift of his Holy Spirit. The greater gift of the Holy Spirit solves the physics problem of how 6 billion plus people in the world can all be close to Jesus at the same time.  Before the Ascension and gift of the Holy Spirit, this is impossible.  Before Pentecost, we would all be fighting each other to get close to Jesus.  Through Pentecost, however, Jesus becomes more present, not less - more real, and less speculative, than if he were walking the earth today.  Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, which will make him present in the Eucharist in just a moment, we take our Lord in even more perfectly and really than those first disciples.  Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus fulfills his promise to come from heaven and to make his home with us, first in the sacred space of our Churches, then also in the very lives of those who belong to his body, the Church.  This Eucharist tonight is nothing less than a real foretaste and participation of what it will be like for the world to reach it's highest destiny. Going to Church is never escaping reality, but is going deeper into the mystery of the world's destiny and redemption.

In the month of May our devotion to Mary increases, for she is the first and best among us to allow herself to become a living tabernacle for Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit.  May we have recourse to the humble example and powerful intercession of our Lady, who teaches us how to allow the Lord to make his home within us, especially through the Holy Eucharist we are about to receive.  Amen.


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