Seeing Words Through Images

This past Sunday Catholics marked the First Sunday of Advent, a period for reflection and penance as we prepare to commemorate the Birth of Jesus on December 25th.  For Catholics in the United States, it was also the first Sunday in which we used the newly-updated translation of the mass from Latin into English, a change that has been discussed and debated for some time now in both Catholic and secular circles.  The fact that Catholics will have to get used to this new translation over a period of many weeks and months means that all of us are going to be paying more close attention both to what those of us in the pews say, and what the celebrant up in the sanctuary is saying.  And because the imagery of the words is going to have an impact on how we see the Faith, I would suggest that having visual cues to hand will help us to think about what we are saying, as this transition moves from newness to normalcy.

One of the more practical explanations for why the Church was so successful in spreading the Gospel was its embrace of the power of religious imagery, not for the purpose of worshiping man-made objects as the pagans had done, but rather to impress upon the minds of the faithful what it is that Christians believe. How else to explain how God could humble Himself to be born as a man, or that God is made up of three divine persons. Whether as simple as the shamrock of St. Patrick or as magnificent as a Renaissance altarpiece, the use of imagery by the Church to help educate the faithful is something that is oftentimes lost today, when parishes think of religious art as being there primarily for the purpose of decoration, rather than instruction.  Even if you do not attend a parish as splendidly decorated as a Gothic cathedral or Baroque basilica, if your parish is aware of the power of the image to reinforce the words heard and said at mass, you can still find a way to connect what you hear and read with what you see.

In my own, very modern-design parish of St. Stephen’s for example, I have something along the lines of these visual cues to accompany my thoughts for a particular section of the  Creed. The sanctuary area of the church is dominated by a life-sized carved and painted crucifix, set into a niche formed by a parabolic arch. At the foot of the cross is the tabernacle containing what Catholics believe to be the Body and Blood of Christ. Above both the cross and the arch of its niche is a large, round stained glass window showing the Agnus Dei, i.e. the Lamb of God from the Book of Revelation, carrying the white pennant with a red cross that is a longstanding iconographic representation of Christ’s Resurrection and eventual return in glory.

When it comes time for the congregation to make their public profession of belief in the Catholic faith, I have always found that this combination of visual elements works well to remind us of what we are saying. Part of the Creed reads thusly, in the new translation of the Roman missal:

For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
[All bow during these three lines]
and by the Holy Spirit
was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and became man.
For our sake
he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures.
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.

Notice how we are asked to bow briefly, as we reflect on the Mystery of God becoming man. We then return to our upright posture to remember Christ’s Passion and Death. At St. Stephen’s as we come out of our bowed position to stand upright, our eyes are automatically drawn to the large sculptural representation of the Crucifixion, so that the combination of words and image is quite a powerful one.

As we continue on to speak of Christ’s Resurrection and eventual return, I always raise my eyes to the round window showing the triumphant Lamb of God above.  Not only does the raising of eyes also seem to cast the brain’s thoughts heavenward, but of course the imagery itself and the shining light coming through the window to illuminate the scene are further visual stimuli to help me think about what it is that I am saying.  It is wonderfully helpful to be able to use these images to remind me of what I believe, just as a family photograph on the credenza across from me reminds me of my parents and siblings, whenever I happen to glance at it.

Of course we do not absolutely need religious imagery in order to practice the faith; indeed, many of the more strictly monastic religious orders, for example, use few to no images at all in their churches. For most of us, however, thinking about things such as the Incarnation, or what resurrection from the dead means, is helped by having some type of visual assistance. It is also why going to the great art museums of the world is always something of a sad occasion for me. For much as I love the beautiful art on display, the religious pieces in particular were designed to teach and to focus the thoughts of many generations of Catholics; these days must of us are now left with mass-produced works that, in many cases, are made of coarse materials and have little or no artistic merit whatsoever.

The new translation of the mass is full of beautiful imagery, of a word-based rather than a visually-based variety, and because of that it may be helpful to get used to that verbal imagery by having something spiritual to look at and reflect upon. Even if you do not attend the prettiest parish in the deanery, gentle reader, remember that the long-standing tradition of Catholics bringing their own copy of the missal to mass on Sunday would allow you to have a prayer card with an image of Christ’s Birth, for example, for your own, private reflection. It is of course not a necessary article, but as a pious practice and for helping you to become accustomed to some of the new language you will be hearing, it may prove to be of great assistance.

The sanctuary area of St. Stephen Martyr parish church
Foggy Bottom, Washington D.C.

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