Architecture and the Mystery of the Incarnation

It is good that we are encountering each other for the first time in the context of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, because the Sacred Liturgy itself and all that surrounds it should provide us with a foretaste, a glimpse of our ultimate meeting in the liturgy of heaven.

In today’s Gospel, our Lord forbids us to take revenge, but I suspect our sixteenth-century ancestors in faith did not think it applied here at Chiesa Nuova, because this church is the surest and clearest revenge of the Church taken against the Protestant Reformers: Everything here conspires to proclaim in a full-throated manner the fullness of the Catholic Faith. Permit me to explore with you three Latin expressions which inspired this artistic venture.

1. Verburn cam facturn est. (The Word became flesh.) We find this line, of course in the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel, and the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus is God’s last and definitive Word- a word spoken in the flesh. The doctrine of the Incarnation is the central doctrine of Christianity, for our salvation began at the Annunciation when “Verburn cam facturn est.” Indeed, the whole Christ-event is salvific: from His conception to His ascension, we are saved by the flesh, the Body of Christ. Therefore,

2. Cam cardo salutis (The flesh is the hinge of salvation), as Tertullian informs us. What saved the world once continues to do so. The body is good because it was created by God and even more clearly so since the Divine Plan made it the very means of our redemption. Because of that, the body -and all material reality - takes on even greater significance. The Father made it good - indeed, very good. And Jesus His Son made it holy. Hence, all that has been redeemed - the entire universe - can be marshaled into the on-going work of redemption, A “catholic” instinct, if you will, then, explains our use of water, bread, wine, oil, and natural things to lead us to experience the supernatural. Similarly, man’s creative genius, especially in the arts, gives us access to the holy.

3. In the Creed, we profess our faith in the communio sanctorum, usually translated as the “communion of saints,” but that is only one meaning. The Latin phrase is deliberately “multivalent” -like any good symbol. So, it means “communion of saints,” yes, but also “communion in holy things” (that is, the sacraments). In other words, our membership in the mystical Body of Christ on earth (”communio sanctorum”) is initiated, sustained and brought to completion by that “communio sanctorum” which is a participation in the beatific vision for all eternity. That participation will still be an embodied/incarnate participation. Remember: Our Lord and Our Lady presently have bodies - glorified bodies - in heaven, and so will we. Therefore, the mystery of the Incarnation continues into eternity.

The arts, then, find themselves at the service of the Incarnation, thus making artists servants or ministers of the Incarnation. Which leads to a logical question: Can a non-believer be, for example, a church architect? Let’s back into that question with another. St. Thomas Aquinas asked if an atheist can be a theologian. To be sure, a non-believer can study theology, memorize various creedal statements, dutifully repeat them on a test, and thus earn an “A.” However, since part of the theological method involves not only the intellectual skills of research and analysis but also faith, St. Thomas concludes that only a true believer can truly do “true theology.”

Mutatis mutandis, the same can and must be said of the various arts and their practitioners. Your task, my dear friends, is to make the words of the Creed take on flesh. Interestingly, the Greek for “creed” is symbolon, derived from syn + ballo, meaning “to throw together,” so as to achieve harmony or unity-a symphony of truths, if you will. Its antonym is diabolos, meaning one who throws into confusion or turmoil.”

Good church architecture reflects the order, beauty, harmony and unity of heaven; it anticipates those heavenly realities and gives the faithful a “sneak preview” of them. Bad church architecture, on the other hand, reflects the disorder, chaos, and angst of hell.

St. Francis advised his brethren, “Always preach; sometimes use words.” Your vocation is to preach the mystery of the Incarnation, not in words, but in stone, brick, wood, or concrete, enlisting all redeemed creation to help in the sanctification of the Church of today and tomorrow. Verbum caro factum est. Caro cardo salutis. Communio sanctorum. Keep those images in mind as you engage in your noble vocation.

In Chiesa Nuova- the new church. St. Philip Neri envisioned that this new church building would bring about a new Church, a renewed Church-and that this would happen most especially as all the arts came to- gether in this place to re-evangelize Rome. Your interest and commitment to the same cause and the same vlan can do the same for us in this particular moment.

As we offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice at the tomb, the altar of the man known as the “Apostle of Joy,” seek St. Philip Neri’s intercession to know that profoundest of joys which comes from the awareness that through your work, you are leading others to eternal joy.

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