Thoughts from Basilicas

(photo: wikimedia commons)

Gazing at the Pietá, the morning’s Bible reading came to mind:

…we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.

-Isaiah 53:4-5

Apparent defeat can be a hidden victory. Only through death could Jesus atone for God’s people in every way. Only through death could Jesus defeat death and rise again. It’s hard to believe this figure is made of marble: He looks emaciated, broken, limp. Yet, there is a hidden weightiness, solidity, permanency to this crucified body. By being killed, the Christ defeated death.

The basilicas do declare this victory-through-defeat. There are thousands of crosses. Every surface seems to show rejected prophets or revered martyrs. The towering altars frame bread and wine that are to represent a self-sacrificing Lord. At the same time, every painting, every statue, every column, every tile, every nook and cranny is gilt, glamorous, martyrdom married to magnificence.

In one way, this makes sense to me. If anything is worth celebrating, this is. If this is the body and blood of Christ, then what expense would we spare to honor God’s great gift to us? If these are those who died in faith, then perhaps we should remember them when it seems God has vindicated His people.

Yet, in another way, grand basilicas trouble me. Surely God Himself will remember those who have died in faith, but the great vindication is yet to come. The cross was a hidden victory; our grandeur is often victory premature. The Church (that is, the people) is not complete, nor is the Church’s work. In this age between the Savior and salvation, true victory will still often seem like defeat, because there is still an Adversary. Many are still captive, our Family still suffers, we must still strive to love like God.

I am not necessarily for tearing apart cathedrals. Whatever mix of motives the thousands of benefactors, bishops, and builders may have had, there is a message here about the glory of God. However, we must simultaneously remember that a cinderblock building in a dusty corner of India where the Spirit has arrived can declare as clearly that God is great and good.

The first time I came to this city, I worried about whether these buildings should have been built. On second thought, non one is asking me, so I needn’t give it too much thought. The question for me is: How do I live in a world of both happiness and hunger, beauty and bereavement, magnificence and martyrdom? I don’t build churches, but we are all called to build the Church. This will take thoughtfulness, meekness, generosity. It will take a stomach for victories that the world discounts as defeats but that God uses for good. As it is written:

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it…if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.

-1 Corinthians 3:10, 12-13

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