On a recent choir tour of France and Spain, we were entering the final city of our stay: Bilbao, Spain. Fatigued from 14 days of covering cities on foot, hiking, and late nights, I was not ready for our tour guide’s casual comment: Here on the left you can see the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The bus was rounding the circular Plaza del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús in the last blocks before our hotel, and I glanced out to see a large stone base before we turned onto a side street.
Throughout the bus I heard murmurs of what I imagined to be cynical comments, as I processed what we had just passed. Even without seeing the statue itself, its very presence broke through my consciousness, reminding me of the great love represented in this beloved image. How would anyone dare scorn it? Perhaps those for whom the over-abundance of religious tchotchkes has engendered contempt? To be fair, there were other believers like myself on the bus, and for us this monument was another of very holy sights we’d visited on this trip, and not even a highlight.
However, those irreverent reactions--real or imagined-- cut me to the core, even though I wouldn’t have expected a group of mature Baby Boomers to be particularly religious. Of course they would not be aware of what this monument signified: God’s great love for his people, manifested in the love of Jesus.
In the first reading for the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart from Deuteronomy, Moses says: “It was because the Lord loved you and because of the oath he had sworn to your fathers, that he brought you out with his strong hand from the place of slavery.”
Paul tells us, “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.” And Jesus invites us: Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” What sweeter reminder of the immense love this image of Christ makes so graphic for us?
But we become complacent. For me it took a monumental reminder to pull off the callous formed by taking this devotion for granted. Hearing God’s boundless love disrespected at the foot of this majestic reminder told me I’ve been too casual.
Maybe it does take a monument. Maybe it’s the proliferation of little images—holy cards, medals, web sites, novenas—that cheapen the effect of these reminders, and consequently water down our devotion. We had visited cathedrals in France and Spain, seen symbols for the arduous Camino pilgrimage to Santiago di Compostela, sung sacred music that has lasted for a century or more. These are serious signs from people who give their lives to producing signs of God’s love.
Those other centuries were times when holy cards could not be printed by the millions, nor medals struck in quantity or a church built in a month or so. They were times when an iconographer’s work was a unique expression of prayer, inspiration, and artistic training. It was not mass-produced.
A loving God who can create the cosmos and still become one of the creatures on a tiny remote planet is not to be taken lightly. “It was not because you are the largest of all nations (planets) that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you, for you are really the smallest of all nations (planets.) One of the smaller, at least.
In the early centuries of the Church a bitter controversy raged over the use of icons, with some accusing those who used them of idolatry. That controversy was resolved, at least in the Catholic Church, but this history can remind us: images must lead us to the sublime reality they indicate.
A trip to Christian Europe can present us with signs that are too big to be missed. Not a single choir member missed the awe-inspiring significance of the cathedrals and sacred art and music. But we can make an effort to make those images we have at home mean more. We can make sure that we don’t stop with an image, but go to the one it represents. We might avoid the dashboard Jesus, the plastic statue of the Immaculate Conception, for example. Make our representations simple, beautiful, meaningful and few. Make it so they can’t be overlooked.