I was in Cardiff last week to give a talk about the Year of Faith. I was meditating on the words of Pope Benedict in Porta Fidei, and in particular on the need for us to ‘rediscover the joy of believing and the enthusiasm for communicating the faith’. These are the concluding thoughts I gave.
I work at Allen Hall, which is the seminary of the Archdiocese of Westminster in central London. Our chapel is over fifty years old, and it is in desperate need of refurbishment.
We have a huge sanctuary with a high ceiling and a beautiful sense of space, but it is sparsely furnished and what little furnishing there is looks very tired. As part of the refurbishment, we are thinking about commissioning a large Cimabue-style crucifix to hang above the altar. Last week, as an experiment, a very roughly produced crucifix was hung in the centre of the sanctuary, just to see how it ‘sits’, how it ‘feels’.
It’s about 7 feet high, made of crudely cut whitewashed wood, with just a charcoal sketch of the outline of Jesus’s crucified body, and the heads of Mary and John placed symbolically at the end of each arm.
It has utterly transformed the sanctuary. You have an immediate sense of the presence of Christ, standing there powerfully in the centre of the church. Everything within the sanctuary is suddenly seen in a new perspective. Of course he was always there before – above all in the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle – but now we really realise that he is there, visually, spatially, emotionally; with the eyes and the heart as well as with the head.
When you are looking at the altar, the priest, the ambo or the tabernacle, you are constantly aware, at the edge of your vision, of the powerful presence of Jesus who died for us and rose from the dead for our salvation. It’s as if he has crashed through the roof, and broken open our complacency and forgetfulness.
It reminds me of the gospel story about the paralysed man, only in reverse (Mk 2). You remember that his friends brought him to meet Jesus, but there were so many people gathered round that they could not get in the door. So instead of giving up, they went to the top of the house, broke through the roof, and lowered their friend down on a stretcher to where Jesus was standing.
For us, in the chapel at Allen Hall, it’s the opposite. It’s as if we are sitting in this sacred space, often distracted, sometimes lost in our own concerns or anxieties, forgetting what really matters. So Jesus breaks through the roof, lowers himself down into the centre of the sanctuary – just above the altar – and stands there before us in all his glory.
It’s as if he is saying: ‘Wake up! Remember! I’m here!’ The fact that the two strands of white rope hang there so ostentatiously reinforces the perception that he has just descended from above.
This says something to us about the Year of Faith. We need to allow Jesus to break into our lives again, so that we can rediscover his face, hear his voice more clearly, and appreciate his life-giving presence.
Our faith is real. It really matters. He is here amongst us. If only we could see him more clearly, and deepen and intensify our faith. If only we could let our hearts be broken open by his love, our minds be transformed by his truth, and our vision expand to take in the vast horizon of the gospel.