By: Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
In a Greek Orthodox church on the island of Cyprus, there is a charming post-Byzantine fresco of the Visitation. In it, Mary greets her cousin Elizabeth, who has traveled from Galilee to Judea to be with her cousin. Providing us with a sort of X-ray view, the artist shows us not only the outward embrace of Mary and Elizabeth but the children hidden within their bodies. The little figures of Jesus and John make visible the words of Elizabeth to Mary: “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.”
The iconographer chose to emphasize Elizabeth’s recognition, through the power of the Holy Spirit, that Mary bore the Lord within her womb and shows her unborn son blessing Elizabeth and John. The tiny figure of Elizabeth’s son John is shown bowing in adoration and worship towards Jesus. In that moment of encounter and embrace between Mary and Elizabeth, as at the Tent of Meeting or the sanctuary of the Temple, God is in the midst of his people.
The approach and greeting of Mary, who bore in her own body the Lord God, caused Elizabeth’s child to leap for joy (as David did before the Ark of the Covenant when it was brought in procession into Jerusalem).
The presence of Jesus within Mary, hidden, yet intelligible through the power of the Holy Spirit, delighted the Church Fathers and medieval exegetes; who never tired of celebrating Mary as the dwelling place of the Incarnate Word. They celebrated her with such titles as the Ark of the Covenant, the Tower of Ivory, the Holy of Holies and the Gate of Heaven.
They saw in Mary both a type or image of the Church, bearing within it Jesus and a type of every believer. The builders of the magnificent medieval cathedrals, dedicated to Our Lady, sought to exemplify in glass and stone how Jesus found a dwelling place within the body of Mary, within the body of the Church and within the person of every disciple.
It is no accident that in almost every European city the first sight that greets you is the cathedral. Each one is a sort of architectural Visitation, Mary’s joyous greeting to all comers, residents and visitors alike. I know that for myself when I first visited Chartres Cathedral the first sight of the spires of the cathedral made my heart leap for joy. The sight of such beauty is the unmistakable sign both of Mary “the highest honor of our race,” and the inestimable treasure of Jesus contained within it.
That Jesus dwells in every Catholic church however modest (or grand) was brought home to me on April 15th when fire threatened to destroy the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. There is so much to ponder about that day: the shocking images of the cathedral in flames; the collapse of the spire; Parisians on their knees, (especially young people), singing the rosary and asking the Lord to deliver their church from destruction.
However, I was particularly moved to learn the next day of how the priest who is the chaplain for the Paris fire brigade rushed into the cathedral with other firefighters to remove the Lord’s body and blood from the tabernacle and retrieve relics of the Lord and the saints housed in the cathedral treasury. He recounted how, in the midst of the smoke and burning embers, he had the presence of mind to stop and solemnly bless the church with the Blessed Sacrament before leaving the building.
Watching the roof of Notre Dame burn, the spire collapse, and the dark column of smoke rising into the sky has been interpreted by some as a metaphor for our present historical moment as a Church. Certainly, the revelations this past year of abuse and corruption in our beloved Church have been difficult to endure for many Catholics. What makes the scandal possible to bear, for me, at least, is the certain knowledge that Christ is present in the very center of his Church at all times and in every situation.
The photographs of the interior of Notre Dame taken after the fire was extinguished revealed real damage: charred timbers and heaps of broken masonry littered the nave. But above the rubble, the cross continued to stand behind the altar and to one side remained the image of Our Lady holding Jesus: a sign of greeting to those who fly to her protection seeking to be delivered from every danger.
In this moment, I don’t want to run away from the (metaphorical) flames and smoke, but like that chaplain, run toward them, confident that Christ himself is present there at the very heart of the Church and that he is close to us in our hopes and fears, sorrows and anxieties, blessing his people and the whole world with his love, mercy, truth, justice and salvation.
May we, like Elizabeth, continue to be filled with joy and expectation at the greeting of Our Lady announcing that her Son is in our midst!