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During Ordinary Time, the Church reminds us of our call to follow the Lord Jesus and seek communion with God. At times, sacred art can remind us of our summons to be in union with God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
For example, if we were to walk down the grand center aisle of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, we would come across the main altar, called the Altar of the Confession. Over the altar is a magnificent canopy, which is modeled on the portable canopies to cover the Blessed Sacrament in processions. The canopy’s design is filled with draping clothes, fringes, and tassels. Although frozen in bronze, it appears to be in movement, almost swayed by a breeze.
The altar itself was built directly over the very bones of Saint Peter, the chief apostle of the Lord Jesus. It is named after the apostle’s declaration of faith: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The altar is the heart of the basilica, just as the sacred actions celebrated upon it are the summit and source of the Church’s life.
In approaching so splendid a place, we can understandably miss a blatant symbol right before our eyes, one that is right on the very columns of the canopy of this holy altar.
If we move closer to the columns, we see a crest composed of three bees which represent the Barberini family, who commissioned the canopy. If we look every closer, above the family crest, we see a woman’s face. As we circle the altar clockwise, and watch the woman’s face on the columns, she moves from peace, to joy, to distress. Pain seems to abate and intensify. What is happening to this woman?
The woman is in the pleasure and pain of childbirth. The natural process comes to fruition at the end of the cycle where, instead of a woman’s face, we see the beaming, smiling face of her newborn baby.
Why is such a scene on the very base of the columns of the main altar of this great basilica?
Historically, the face of the woman recalls Giulia Barberini, the niece of Pope Urban VIII. The pope greatly loved this niece and was worried about her difficult pregnancy. When she bore a healthy child, he instructed the image to be placed on the canopy in gratitude to God for the safe delivery of the child.
Theologically, the face of the woman displays God’s desires for union with us. In his providential ways, God uses the natural order to give grace and express supernatural truths to us. As two became one, and a woman brings forth new life, so we are called to seek to be one with God and allow for a new creation to come forth within us.
Saint Paul stresses this point throughout his teachings. He writes: “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
Yes, the old person must give way to a new person. We are called to be a new creation in Jesus Christ and so share a fellowship – a complete union – with God.
The face of the woman on the columns of the canopy of the Altar of the Confession of Saint Peter’s Basilica reminds us of this central point of our faith, namely, we are called to be one with God and to allow his grace to mold and transform us into a new person.
Saint Paul again emphasizes this point, as he further teaches us: “ I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
As we walk through Ordinary Time, and are reminded through the Scriptures at Mass how we are called to live and follow the way of the Lord Jesus, we are invited to rededicate ourselves to God and to recommit ourselves to seeking a complete union with him.
Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby