"St Peter’s Basilica in Rome is a fitting image of the church: an immensely problematic body which the Holy Spirit somehow manages to keep pushing forward on one end, and pulling beyond its comfort zone on the other".
Probably no other headquarter in the world captures with equal eloquence both the strengths and the flaws of the organization based in it as St Peter’s basilica in Rome. I was looking at it only last Tuesday, in the middle of the night, on my way to a lovely cocktail bar in Prati, the exclusive neighbourhood surrounding the Vatican Museums. The imposing façade conveys immense stability. The dome it is famous for, familiarly called er cupolone by the Romans, projects self-possession, eternity, and perfection: it captures and contains the firmament, and indeed Jesus’ sentence in which he bestows the monopoly of access to heavens to Peter is written on its internal basis. Whenever I marvel at this dome, I cannot help thinking that its cost was the Reformation, since the selling of indulgences which sparked Luther’s indignant first pamphlet was specifically meant to pay for it.
And yet, I find that the ambiguities of St Peter’s basilica are offset by two remarkable features of this building.
The first, hard to miss, is Bernini’s colonnade: however gigantic the basilica, these arms are vastly oversized and were they to be converted into a human body would put it off balance. However concerned with its own immovability, the church remains vulnerable -so to speak- to a mysterious, unmanageable, irrepressible urge to reach out, embrace humanity – the church is more arms than body.
The other redeeming feature of St Peter’s is easily missed, but precisely for this reason all the more significant. Right at the back of the basilica, in the apse, viewers would be forgiven if they completely missed the imposing sculpture of the throne of St Peter also by Bernini. The dark entanglement of the bronze sculpture cannot compete with the light that comes from the window pane above it, in which a white dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit (interestingly, this stained glass window is not made of glass, but of alabaster, a naturally translucent stone). It is a metaphor: the only hope of getting anything right in the church comes from the Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit will keep finding ways of giving us glimpses of God’s truth in the midst of all the mess we constantly make of the mission entrusted to us.
In the end, I find that St Peter’s is a fitting image of the church: an immensely problematic body which the Holy Spirit somehow manages to keep pushing forward on one end, and pulling beyond its comfort zone on the other.
I have always thought that it is at their peril that rulers commission works of art meant to celebrate their power to artists. Great art excels at disguising satire under the appearances of flattery – and autocrats excel at missing this irony because the cost of their all-consuming hold on power is the obliteration of their sense of humour.
God somehow is such an artist himself. In our serious zeal to replace his kingdom with ours, highjack religion for our purposes, we overlook the endlessly unexpected ways in which he remains in charge, subverts our machinations, “scatters the proud in the imaginations of their hearts, brings down the mighty from their thrones, sends the rich away empty” (Lk 1.51f).
This is the case of the scene of today’s Gospel, which takes place in one of the mightier temples of antiquity, the result of 46 years of works, the focal point in the life of any Jewish person in Jesus’ time. In the Second book of Chronicles, we are told that when Solomon ended the solemn prayer of dedication of (a previous version of) the temple, the glory of God filled it (6.1f) in such a way that nobody else could enter it, not even the priests. God had been very reluctant to let his people build a temple for him. More often than not, temples are an affirmation of human pride under the pretext of celebrating God’s glory. So the irony in the scene from the 2nd book of Chronicles is that God’s glory turns out to be far more unmanageable than anyone had been able to anticipate so that even the priests – one might say especially the priests- were kept out of the temple!
Accustomed to this style of theophanies, that is of manifestations of God’s presence, Jesus’ opponents in John’s gospel can be forgiven for dismissing his claims. This time, at the feast of dedication, in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon (his name here of course is not casual), the glory of God fills it unnoticed, in disguise, unobtrusively (Jn 10.22f). It can be perceived only by those who worship the Father in Spirit and truth (Jn 4.23) and know that the real temple is Jesus’ own body (Jn 2.21).
The same irony is at play in our liturgy, each time we celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of our places of worship, our beautiful temples. We commemorate the inauguration of our fabulous buildings by reminding ourselves that the only stone that matters is Jesus – a stone which serious builders of all times keep discarding because they remain prisoners of the “imaginations of their own hearts”, cannot hear Jesus’ voice – since only his sheep can hear his voice, be known by him, and follow him (Jn 10.27).
Thus there is a sense in which the celebration of the dedication of our churches offers us the opportunity to revisit our vision of the church – in ways not entirely dissimilar to what we do in the bodies, workplaces, charities and even churches we are part of, when we reflect on our shared vision and draft mission statements accordingly. We know how, when it is performed intelligently, this exercise can greatly increase the focus and impact of our organizations.
There is a sense in which liturgy, preaching, meditating on Scripture, the study of theology, architecture, figurative arts, music –all are ways of refining our vision and our mission statement as church: they all convey images, ideas, metaphors of what we think or wish the church to be, how we want it to be perceived by others. Our hope, in this exercise, is to get closer to what God wants his church to be – even though, this ultimate verification will have to wait until the end of times, as the book of Revelation tells us.
In it we are told that one day we will be carried by the Spirit on a great, high mountain, and God himself will show us “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb, … the Holy City of Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel” (Rv 21.9-11). Until that time, until the moment in which we will see the Church as God sees it, we will have to settle for approximations, delight in this imperfection, and hopefully manage to keep disillusion at bay, look for the redeeming aspects of our institutions wherever they can be found. And it must be said that often we have to look twice for this.
In the end, this might be one of the ways in which this page from the book of Revelation reaches us as Gospel, as good news. Nobody is aware of the shortcomings of our churches more than God is and yet in his vision this same church still has the radiance of a most rare jewel. We need to keep this vision before our eyes, keep returning to it. In the case of the church too, just as it happens for any other aspect of our lives, real beauty is perceived only by those who lovingly, assiduously, patiently learn how to recognize it.