The Façade of the Passion
The Baptism of the Lord; January 13, 2019
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Last Sunday we went to the International Mass at the Basilica of the Holy Family (Sagrada Família) in Barcelona. It was a Roman Catholic Mass, but it was international in the sense that the liturgy was in Latin (the international language), and the readings, prayers, and homily were in Catalan, Castilian, Italian, French, English, and German. For example, the preacher would give a paragraph of the homily in Catalan, then one in French, then one in English, then one in Castilian (Spanish), and so forth. So nobody understood all of it, but we all got some of it!
On Monday we returned to the Church and spent the afternoon there. It is a remarkable place. It's been under construction for some 130 years; I have seen it grow since I first visited it in 1976. One of the many things I learned about it this time was the relationship of the interior to the exterior; well, the last time I had seen it, twenty-six years ago, there was no interior: no floor, no roof, just three of the walls.
The interior is plain: few statues or other images, just a crucifix, stained glass windows, and a forest of columns. It's really quite striking in its simplicity. The interior is meant to evoke reflection and self-examination. The exterior, however, is a chorus of statues and words and images: from fruit and insects and birds and tortoises to the stories of the life of Jesus. The façade I saw as a college student in 1976 tells the stories of the Nativity: the Annunciation, the birth of Jesus, the visits of the shepherds and the Magi, the Flight into Egypt, and so on.
The Façade of the Passion, which I first saw in 1992, tells the story of the Passion of Jesus: the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, the trial and torture, the Crucifixion, and above it all the Resurrection. It tells it in images, but it also tells it in words, as the entire story of the Passion is embossed on the doors in Catalan, the language of the architect Antoni Gaudí and the language of Barcelona.
Here is what I learned: Gaudí intended this Church to tell the Gospel to the world. Inside it invites self-examination; outside it proclaims the story of Jesus. When the building is finished, possibly as soon as eight years from now, a great tower surmounted by a Cross will be the tallest structure in Barcelona and, I believe, the tallest church tower in Europe. The Cross over all.
The outside of the building tells the stories of Jesus, not only his Cross, but the other important events of his life. Our new bell tower does some of that, but our building is not designed to tell the stories of Jesus. Well, if I had been able to sell an idea, there would have been something more. Remember the four columns out front that used to support the porte-cochere? Rather than remove them, I wanted to top them with sculptures representing the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) from the four creatures of the Apocalypse. Nobody else thought it was a good idea, so it probably wasn't a good idea.
Anyway, that would have done some telling the world about Jesus, and the three Crosses on our bell tower go a long way, but our building isn't going to tell the world about Jesus. So I guess we're going to have to do that by the kind of people we are as a congregation. Our building won't do it for us, so we have to do it ourselves. We need two things if that is going to be real.
First, we need to know the stories of Jesus ourselves. It isn't enough to have a passing acquaintance with the guy whose birthday makes Santa Claus possible; it demands study. You can't know Jesus' priorities, Jesus' teaching, Jesus' actions if you don't take time to study. We have to figure out how to become a more biblically literate people, a people that knows the Bible and cares about its message. We need to know the story of Jesus ourselves if we're going to tell the world about him. And the second thing is that our actions as a congregation need to be shaped by what we know of Jesus. A lot of people sling around a lot of claims about what Jesus wants us to do, but how do they know that? What does Jesus want us to do?
Here is the challenge facing our Session and our Board of Deacons, the leaders we set apart today for ministry. We trust them to guide us in knowing the stories of Jesus and in showing Jesus to the world. Our building isn't going to do it for us, so we have to do it ourselves.
Our Scripture readings today (Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22) give us that challenge and also assure us. The Prophet challenges us to pass through water and fire; the Baptist challenges us to step into the Jordan and to receive the Holy Spirit and fire. I get annoyed with the Prophet for saying the water will not drown us nor will the fire harm us, because you and I know perfectly well that something is going to get us, sooner or later. So I wish he hadn't said that. But I'm going to hold onto the assurance we get from both the Prophet and the Gospel: God knows us, God remembers us, God calls us by name. Something will get us, sooner or later, but then God will remember us, God will call us by name, God will say, "You are my child, my beloved."
Remember the story of Jesus: he went into the water, and that was the beginning of a very scary time for him. It set him on a road that led to arrest, to beating, to execution by the State at the request of the Church. But God remembered him and drew him out of the water again. On the Façade of the Passion, high above all the other figures, is Christ raised from the dead. That part of the story of Jesus is the part of the Gospel, above all, that our life as a congregation needs to show the world.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master