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By Hugh McNichol
On the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist, I attended the blessing and dedication of a statue in his likeness at a Catholic parish in Philadelphia. The blessing of the statue was preceded by the celebration of the Liturgy of the Eucharist and the church was filled with not only parish members but appreciative enthusiasts of the artist that executed Saint John's likeness.
The Eucharistic liturgy as per the Roman calendar celebrated the appropriate liturgy of the day in commemoration of John the Baptist. The homily was well developed and theologically astute. However there was never a mention of the artist and his creation when referring to the statue of the Baptist. This omission while not subtle sometimes happens when we forget to remember the truly important task artisans of sacred themes have placed upon them. Their task is to utilize their artistic talents to glorify God and our Church's expressions of Her faith.
Additionally, there is a very fine line between celebrating the new artistic work and its spiritual significance and celebrating the artist. However both aspects of celebration should be joyfully celebrated as one event. At times we try to diminish individual's contributions to particular projects because we sometimes think it detracts from the event. Artists and their works however are uniquely and inextricably united with their works, just like authors are forever linked to their writings.
When we celebrate sacred art, we celebrate the artist as well. The artist not only presents a deeply intense expression of his/her faith, they also represent the intense beliefs of a living parish community. As faithful Catholics we should be extremely thankful for the talents of all artisans that choose to express their religious beliefs through their art. Not only should the community of believers offer thanks and congratulations, but our sacramental leaders, our priests should loudly voice the appreciation of the people.
After all the artistic expression of the artist gives tangible representation of divine mysteries of which the priest is the sacramental mediator. Whenever we celebrate sacred art, we celebrate God's mystery and our seminal human attempt to glorify God. The priest united with the body of faith as well as the artist is attempting to bridge the chasm between human expression and divine existence. In some ways one could honestly present the argument that the results of the labor of the artist are themselves vehicles for the greater glorification of God.
Such a relationship between human expression of faith and the utilization of sacred images as vehicles for our transcendence to the deity have always been part of the Catholic prayer tradition. Throughout the ages, many Catholic cathedrals, churches and chapels have been decorated in a variety of artistic motifs to enhance our spiritual and liturgical understanding of what we consider sacred.
For Catholics, especially through the use of sacred architecture and images are used as accessories to our most sacred rituals. Sacred art and images are not themselves reflective of the Catholic mysteries of faith, but are rather tools that help us comprehend the vast mystery of God. That is precisely why we need to celebrate the art, the artist and the sacramental community that gives witness to God through artistic expressions of faith. Whatever the skill, whatever the craft, whatever the medium, the artist is using the gifts of the Creator given uniquely to each artisans particular skill towards a deeper eschatological appreciation of our faith and sacraments.
We don't always appreciate the results of artistic labor, especially in a contemporary society that is not inclined to regard extraordinary talents that give testimony to religion and God. We will however give accolades to individuals that compete the fastest, play sports the hardest and even those that accumulate the most possessions...however we as a Church are sometimes noncommittal and sometimes unable to praise the ethereal works that assist us in our worship. Perhaps the reason for this shortcoming it is because as clergy, faithful and individuals we fear giving praise when praise is due.
In some misplaced and misguided way bestowing praise on the artist somehow diminishes our own personal inability to comfortably express sentiments of praise to our brothers and sisters in faith. We especially feel inhibited at times by those with creative and artistic gifts. That is not the appropriate way for fellow believers to feel towards each other. As a faithful community we should celebrate all of the talents and gifts that each individual contributes to their expressions of faith. When we start doing this freely then perhaps a true community of faith will develop where we all commonly contribute our skills to the worship of God's infinite Being as well as God's manifestation of Himself in each and every one of us.
In conclusion, it is not a bad thing to acknowledge the accomplishment and talents of the artist even during the celebration of the Sacred Mysteries. After all the results of human labor in our churches and shrines and our prayerful spaces are enduring testimonies to their deeply rooted expressions of individual faith, as well as our common expressions of mutual faith as the People of God. We should loudly give applause and accolades to everyone involved in the pursuit of sacred art and religious expression because it reflects the spiritual and theological desires among each and every one of us as individuals and as collective living art of the Body of Christ.
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Hugh McNichol - Author, 302 6339348
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