Sunday, February 17, 2008

Heaven descends upon the altar



~by Enrico Radaelli via Chiesa
No sooner did I raise my eyes but I was in heaven: saint after saint, angels, powerful archangels, playful cherubim and seraphim, ruddy and agile; a radiant feast in ranks that stretched into the distance; among the clouds illustrious popes, young martyrs, severe doctors, ecstatic virgins, austere hermits; all there, countless men and angels, scattered through the expanse of heaven until they reached its highest circles: here were the ancient patriarchs, John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, the Apostles, the Virgin in her splendor, and, at the center, the dazzling heart of life itself: the eternal Trinity.

I was not "outside of myself," but beneath the cupola of the Church of the Gesù in Rome, to revisit the great fresco of Baciccia, "The vision of Heaven," one of the most beautiful and ornate of all the frescoes in the City of the Popes.

So I was not in mystical ecstasy, but in that admirable mass ecstasy which the faithful have attained, in adoration, for two thousand years, ever since, in the divine mysteries, a God has truly descended, and – as Romano Amerio says – this God truly becomes tangible. For thousands and thousands of years, whether in catacombs or in cathedrals, the Trinitarian liturgy that takes place in heaven descends among his flock under the forms of the sacred species. The liturgy descends and Christ, priest and victim, is made substantially present. And the Church, with the wisdom of her spouse and as mother of those called to the sacrosanct mysteries, takes care always to make the flock aware of this reality: not only by teaching the most correct doctrine to it, but also by bringing it almost to touch the reality that is procured, placing it, as Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity used to say, "face to face, although in darkness," with the Glory of God.

It is because of this intimate and religious necessity, in fact, that very early on the walls and vaults of the sacred rooms intended for the Eucharist – beginning with the chambers hidden in the catacombs, then the pagan temples converted to the worship of the Trinity, and then all of the sacred buildings of every dimension and style that rose up wherever Christianity arrived – began expanding to make room for the saints, becoming flecked and overlaid with stars, opening wide not only for the glorious past of the Church militant, as with the ranks of virgins and martyrs in the basilica of Ravenna, but also to the future, already present in a mysterious way, of the triumphant Church, to the exultant heavens of the cupolas that we are looking at, signifying in pictorial form their effective but hidden descent.

What was really received by hearts was what was surrounding those hearts; the reality invisible on the altar was visible around the altar, and the faithful forgave the benign deception suggested by the artist, knowing very well that they were seeing "artificial" heavens – inspired by realities already mysteriously at work – but not "fake" ones; in other words, they were not mistaking reality. These heavens were, therefore, "prophetic" of realities to come, while the faithful received in their mouths the "true" heavens, and their hearts were widened to a reality already present in all of its divinity and all of its humanity.

The Eucharistic reality – around which the people gathered, constituting the Ekklesia, assembly of those called, Church – immediately called out to be taught and made visible. If necessary, the Church would engrave in gold leafing, as it did at the time of the medieval codices, the characters of the pages of doctrine, so as to highlight their nobility, their lofty superiority, or better, the divinity that these contain.

In some way, Truth and Beauty are accompanied by the same urgency: that of the Truth, to erupt fully within hearts, and that of Beauty, to shine in its splendor upon the walls.

The inspiration of giving sacred buildings the form of a cross springs directly from the sacrality of the Eucharist, so that it almost seems to the faithful that they are entering directly into the wood of the cross, and into the very body of Christ – to which they truly do gain access – almost as if that mystical incorporation into the ecclesial sacrament, anticipated from eternity, were truly happening.

In the fifteenth century, Filippo Brunelleschi added to the walls, that with their cruciform arrangement made physical reference to the mystery of the incarnation, the architectural figuration of that other and higher mystery, the Trinity, and in the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence reinvented the cupola as the "cosmic space" for appropriately crossing the longitudinal and transversal arms of the Christian basilica precisely where the heart of Christ beats, where the Sacrifice is carried out, thus allowing the church to infuse other necessary and lofty thoughts into the faithful: there where Heaven descends upon the altar, "lift up your eyes," O faithful, and "see" everything that has passed from the altar and into your hearts.
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