By Fr. Reginald, O.P.
Just imagine how the disciples must have felt as our Lord went up to Heaven. They had seen him, their great friend and leader, suffer a tortured and humiliating death; and then they had experienced the incomprehensible consolation of his Resurrection appearances; and now that they are just beginning to grasp the fact that Jesus, once dead, is alive again and glorious, they seem to be losing him once more as he vanishes from their sight in the cloud. Nevertheless he had assured them, and he assures us, “Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt. 28:20). This continued presence of Christ is not as visible as when he was in his natural body, but it is just as real as when he walked with his Apostles. Jesus is present to us in the Scriptures, in prayer, in the charity of the members of his Mystical Body, and in the Sacraments, above all in the holy Eucharist. He is also present in the wisdom and beauty that he has inspired in his Church over the centuries.
This last form of his presence, in the beautiful works of art that believers have produced, came to mind last month when the world held its breath and wondered if the great Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris would be gone forever. I think people could sense that it is not just a pretty building, but also a witness to the presence of Jesus, alive in the faith of those who built it and worshiped in it through the ages. It may seem like a bold claim, but I would say that such beautiful works of art are in a way a continuation of the Incarnation of the Son of God. Jesus, coming into our world as a man, showed some of the beauty and glory of God in his flesh and blood; his believers, inspired by faith and enlivened by grace, showed some small part of that same glory of God in the stone and glass of Notre-Dame Cathedral. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “our visible churches, holy places, are images of the holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem, toward which we are making our way on pilgrimage” (1198). Walking into a place like Notre-Dame, seeing the spires and the vaulted ceilings stretching far above our heads, we can sense that the human heart is reaching up for the God who has come down to us in Jesus — “Lift up your hearts!” as the preface of the Mass tells us.
This means that we should never be satisfied with ugliness or mediocrity in our sacred art, architecture, music, and worship because that would fail to tell the truth about the beauty of the Lord that we believe in. The Church, too, in the Second Vatican Council, affirms that the sacred arts are “oriented toward the infinite beauty of God which they attempt in some way to portray by the work of human hands” (SC 122) and praises the “treasury of art which must be very carefully preserved” (123).
The heartbreak that people felt over the Notre-Dame Cathedral tells me that, even in our secularized world, there still may be enough love of Jesus left that the Son of Man might just find faith on earth when he returns (Luke 18:8). As we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven, remembering the varied ways of his continued presence among us, let us give thanks that this great testimony to faith was saved from total destruction, and let us pray that its restoration may a humble act of devotion, to the glory of God.