Monday, May 07, 2007

Interesting Times

"In the eternal silences of the Blessed Trinity, God our Father spoke but one word: Jesus."
-St. John of the Cross

History seen from the perspective of the Roman Catholic is most often confined to the last two thousand years, the era when the Christian religion was born, and for good reason. The last two millennia have undoubtedly seen the rise and fall of nations, ideologies, theologies and lifestyles, all of them, in one way or another, being influenced by Christianity. From Classical times to the postmodern existence of today, Christianity has always played a part in something, and it is for this reason that it is said that the history of the Church is the history of Western civilization-- for indeed, the West owes its existence to the labors of the countless monks who persevered, day and night, to salvage the last traces of the ancient wisdom from being forgotten by the immense, unforgiving wages of time.

But just what is the history of the Church? We know for a fact-- nay, truth-- that there was once a time when God humbled Himself to save wretched man. There was a time when He whom the seven heavens could barely contain found hearth and home in the womb of a Virgin. There was a time when the Divine was content to walk the broken earth on His feet, when the Boundless consigned to be urned by fragile flesh. There was a time in our history when the Eternal sated Itself with bread and drink, when the Transcendent deigned to partake of the limited and 'solid' nature of man, when heaven was joined to earth, and the earth joined the triumphant hosts in glorifying this human God.

There too, was a time, when God wept; when He bled copiously; when His blood was spilled on the same earth upon whose face He walked so tenderly. God, too, was afraid when the soldiers came to seize Him, and He felt the sting of betrayal like a lance to the heart in the treachery of Judas. God felt alone, raised to the heavens on a piece of wood upon whose beams His own hands were nailed, and even in that hour, He still found time to bless the jeering crowd which had clamored for His death. The words of the Good Friday service are an especially poignant and haunting reminder: "My people, what have I done to you?"

In the cross, Jesus hung for all the world to see-- humiliated, ridiculed, mocked, a disgusting eyesore for even the most mangled leper. His body wept from a thousand orifices, cruelly torn and flayed by the whips of the Roman soldiers. He was naked and alone, and the cold indifference and their blinding hatred hurt Him more than any of the instruments of torture could have managed to inflict upon Him. He was despised, the most abject of men, a man of unending sorrows, who seemed to have taken the full force that the legions of hell could muster in those ungodly hours. It is not a pretty sight; it is horrible, scandalous, and incites absolute repulsion and outrage.

Looking back, it always puzzled me how a man, let alone God, could bear such things. His death was the ultimate insult in the history of the universe: that the Creator of heaven and earth, the Lord of hosts and King of kings, the same thundering God of the Old Testament, was subject to such unforgivable impiety and derision is for me one of those questions which seem to form part of the fabric of the universe itself. Why? How? What is the point of all the suffering?

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I like the Baroque, especially the particularly extravagant species that is the Spanish Baroque to such an impossible degree (although I like Gothic art equally as much). Growing up, those bloody images of Our Lord were something I was afraid of, and surprisingly, attracted to as well. I will never forget how much a particular crucifix in our old parish-- an antique, almost two hundred year old synthesis of pain and suffering and death-- used to scare me out of my wits on more than one occasion. This crucifix, with its irregularly proportioned corpus of immaculate, black hardwood and glazed glass eyes, seemed to stare at back at me whenever I looked at it, and in those glass eyes, I saw myself-- the sinner whose sins drove the nails into the sacred flesh-- reflected back.

But this crucifix, as I learned later on, would also offer me the greatest comfort in my most trying times. As I grew, I learned to love it, and not fear it; and I came to love that crucifix. The eyes of the corpus no longer seemed to condemn me to everlasting fire, but now seemed to well with tears, as if asking me, "Will you answer Me?" I felt how Our Lord must have dreaded that hour, written in stone in the altars of heaven, when the world would be cast out of darkness and into light; when salvation literally hung on the balance; when God Himself ransomed sinful, wretched man from His own justice through the most inconceivable outpouring of His love. It was the hour of triumph, born in the midst of tribulation and distress.

But these are not just pious legends and moral exhortations; these were real episodes in human history. For many of us living in this postmodern age, one wonders just what place religion has in society. They may even question the veracity of the crucifixion; but for us Catholics, such questions are irrelevant. What matters is that it is the TRUTH. And that is the way it has been for hundreds of years. We dwell in the same earth where God once dwelt, and we breathe the same air that He breathed. The earth we live in is the same altar on which Our Lord was first raised to Heaven for the expiation of our sins, and it is the same sun that warms us and gives us life that hid its face in that moment of infamy. Our God is not a god who is indifferent to His creation; ours is a God who humbled Himself to partake of His own creation. He is a God who once dwelt with sinners, who wept for them and continues to offer them His forgiveness. Ours is a God who loves.

Thus, I will continue to enjoy and express my awe at gaudily dressed images of the saints, borne aloft on the shoulders of hundreds of men. I will continue to marvel at those images of Our Lord which have been reduced to a quivering mass of bloody, bleeding flesh. I will weep at the feet of six foot tall Madonnas dressed in their old fashioned gowns. And I will always love 'bad taste' and popular religiosity, for these, at least, have managed to preserve one of the most important articles of our Faith; that God Himself once became man, and was pleased to share in our fragile conditions. And this is true today as it has been for twenty centuries, and it will continue to be so in the succeeding years to come.

We do indeed live in interesting times. We have only to look for them amidst this vale of tears.


Archistrategos said...

I might add that this was originally supposed to be a defense of bad taste alone, but it got sidetracked along the way. I think I ended up liking the end product more than what I originally had in mind.

Andrew said...

Haha... I started with a defence of popular piety and ended up with a discourse on the Real Presence and healing faith =) Talk about getting sidetracked.

Andrew said...

But I guess what I wanted to say was this. God became man, in the great Divine Condescension, not only to redeem and to atone, but also to share in the condition of humanity as an exemplar, to identify with us and be one of us so that we can identify with Him and emulate Him.

The gaudy images which you describe do the same thing. It makes Jesus identifiable to the people.

We're not theorists living in a world of ideas but humans living in a world enfleshed. The statues of the Virgin dressed as a Spanish Queen or an Indian Empress as Our Lady of Vailankanni and the Santo Nino dressed as a Royal Child makes them identifiable to the people. They are not made remote, as one looking from the outside would think, but they become, rather, someone whom the people can imagine, within their culture and experience, someone the people can relate to.

But still, what helps one person from one culture to get closer to God might drive another away. The Black Nazarene procession down the streets of New York or a statue of Our Lady of Vailankanni set up in downtown Dublin might be a little too much. But this is because the people there can't identify with those images. They are instead an obstacle to faith, a barrier to a relationship with the Person those images symbolize.

I think that's an important point to make.

Doubtless, the sanitized version of Christianity-lite that many in the West experience these days can use a good dose of Christ Crucified and bloodied, to remind them of what their sins have done and the cost of the atonement which was paid in full by the blood of Christ Jesus, context and presentation need to be formed by the culture of the people so that the message gets across.

What do you think?

Archistrategos said...

^ That is spot on, Andrew. I like AWN Pugin churches as much as any sane Catholic, but I also think that such parishes done in 'bad taste' (i.e., excessively ornamented baroque)have their own merits. It was these churches, after all, where our grandfathers knelt, where missionaries prayed, where images of the Virgin and saints were crowned, where Our Lord descended from heaven. True, there is a tendency for it to look too human sometimes; but then again, wasn't the whole point of the Incarnation precisely this? That God humbled Himself before his creation in order to redeem us? Truly, His love knows no equal. To this extent, He has loved us-- obedient even unto death on the Cross.

I personally find Protestants who pine against images as blasphemous as being slightly insane, in a bad way. At least the devotion of the people who do these things is real, for the most part. Where our ancestors flogged Him and drove nails into His flesh, we now adorn His head with golden crowns, and the robes that bound His hands are now made of silk. IMHO, Protestantism tends to gloss over these things considerably, so that what you have left is practically a joke, and one that isn't even funny in the first place.

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

This is why I find the cult of Byzantine icons in the West a little unsettling. Icons can be too sanitized, theoretical, and a-historical for the Westtern man. They do not engage him, and therefore he can still "keep his distance", thus not challenging the now prevalent crypto-Protestant atheism that I think is spreading itself with postmodernity.

Archistrategos said...

^ I know what you mean. Icons are definitely VERY beautiful things, both physically and theologically, but that is just the problem: they are sometimes TOO pretty and too perfect to be useful.