Sunday, November 22, 2015

Beauty Will Save the World

(Solemnity of Christ the King-Year B; This homily was given on November 22, 2015 at Paul VI Chapel in Meriden, CT.; See John 18:33-37)

In his first encyclical letter, Lumen Fidei, our Holy Father Pope Francis reflects on a scene from Dostoevsky’s novel, The Idiot.   It is the scene where Prince Myshkin is looking at a famous painting of Christ in the tomb.  The image, painted by Hans Holbein, is a particularly brutal and graphic rendering of the effects of Jesus’ death.  Prince Myshkin, somewhat taken aback, says, “Looking at that painting might cause one to lose his faith.”

Yet Pope Francis, in Lumen Fidei, insists instead that “it is precisely in contemplating Jesus’ death that faith grows stronger and receives a dazzling light” (Lumen Fidei, 16).  The more we consider all that Christ endured, all that He was willing to go through in order to save us from our sins and throw wide open the gates of heaven, the more we grow in faith and in appreciation for that beautiful self-offering of Jesus Christ for us.

Further on in Dostoevsky’s novel, Prince Myshkin begins to feel the effects of his own weakening condition, a debilitating disease that is threatening to consume his life.  But suddenly, even in the midst of his suffering, he glimpses for a moment how beautiful and harmonious the gift of life truly is.   It is an experience that floods his soul with joy, even to the point of ecstasy, and his entire perspective begins to change.  Attributed to Prince Myshkin, then, is the astounding claim: “Beauty will save the world.”

He does not mean that beauty in some general way will save the world, but that beauty has the capacity to open our hearts to something beyond our own often compromised and burdened experience.  Even under the weight of our crosses and even when the darkness seems to surround us, beauty can find a way through and connect us once again with God.

Beauty will save the world.

But the question we are forced to ask ourselves this weekend is: Will it save Paris, France?  Will beauty save the City of Brussels, that is under the same threat in these dark days of terror?  Will beauty save our cities, and the world we live in today, from an even greater threat than fundamentalist Islam: the radical secularization that is threatening to remove God from all semblance of public life?

Rampant in our culture is this sense that faith and God have no place in the world.   If there is any value to faith at all it is only as a private devotion, hardly worth living for and certainly not worth dying for.  Church, faith, God, become an extra, an aside, peripheral in the grand scheme of earthly life.  We definitely should be concerned with the evil of terrorism and the violence that besets our cities, yet secularization has the potential to destroy much more than human life here on earth.  It threatens to remove souls from the presence of God, for all eternity. 

Will beauty save the world?

In the middle of the City of Paris is a small patch of land called the Île de la Cité, the Isle of the City.  On that small island stands what is perhaps the most beautiful and remarkable cathedral in the western world: Notre Dame Cathedral.  There is nothing immediately beautiful, however, the moment one walks into that historic church.   The environment is dim, and the walls are rather bare.  There are some paintings and statues, and some rather plain stained glass windows just above eye-level.  The massive columns that hold up the cathedral are ornamented with leaves and foliage meant to symbolize Eden recaptured.   It is impressive, but not overwhelmingly so. 

Yet once the eyes begin to adjust, the expanse of Notre Dame begins to draw them upward to the vaulted arches and the magnificent cathedral ceiling.  The radiant and brilliant stained glass windows, set impossibly high above the apse, and the great rose windows in the north and south transepts, flood the soul with images of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary, the saints, the angels, the virtues and heaven itself.  The very structure of Notre Dame captivates the soul and ignites within it a deep desire and longing.

The point that the architects of Notre Dame had in mind, of course, is that this world is solid and strong; it is awesome and possesses a beauty all its own.  It is a wonderful and substantial place, but it is simply not enough.  We are made for much, much more than this solid and substantial place.  We are made for heaven, for eternity, and for an everlasting life in the presence of God and the angels and saints.  This is not our home, but there is a place more beautiful than we could possibly imagine, and it awaits us and beckons us even now.

In our Gospel for this Solemnity of Christ the King, Jesus Christ the King of the Universe is being confronted and interrogated by a man.  How ironic and paradoxical is that?  Jesus Christ stands before Pontius Pilate, who does not recognize Him.  He questions Christ and asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus’ answer is astounding, even for us who believe in Him and His kingship:

My kingdom does not belong to this world.
—John 18:36

 How remarkable, that Christ the King would say such a thing.  But then He clarifies his answer:

If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not here.
—John 28:36

The kingdom and the reign of Christ is not an earthly kingdom.  One day it will be, and that is something we pray for incessantly every day:  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”  We anticipate and even hasten the day when that reign will be fully established on the earth (see 2 Peter 3:12).   But we are reminded daily that this kingdom of Christ is not like the kingdoms of the world.  It is different, and because it does not belong to this world we are called to live our lives completely for that kingdom that will last forever, where we will be eternally united to God.  Everything we do and all that we strive for must be informed by, inspired by and focused on that kingdom.

The great English writer, C.S. Lewis, once said that the men and women who did the most for this world (think of the saints, the great writers, artists and architects, the men and women of God that helped build entire cultures and established hospitals and universities) were the men and women who thought mostly of the world to come.  Aim at heaven, he said, and you will get earth thrown in with it.  Aim only at earth, and you will get neither!

But we are living in a world where fewer and fewer people think mostly about the world to come.  So many people today live their lives as if this were the only world there is, or ever will be.  Their lives are preeminently and, in some cases, entirely, focused on earth, and they stand to lose it all.  What will catch their attention, awaken their desire for heaven and eternal life, and captivate their souls with the one, necessary thing (Luke 10:42) that alone will truly satisfy them?

Beauty will save the world.

This morning, Beauty Himself comes to us here and speaks to us in the Sacred Scriptures.  Beauty Himself will come down from heaven and dwell with us here on this altar.  Beauty will most certainly save the world.  But the question we must ask ourselves this morning is whether or not we will allow Beauty to save us, and to send us out into the world, to be the beautiful face of Jesus Christ, the King.