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The glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle

| Monday, September 30, 2019

Sophia Sheehy recently submitted a column that gratuitously lambasts the significance not only of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, but also of human artistic achievement more generally.

I was disappointed that Sophia took this direction. Toward the beginning, the article was well-researched and argumentatively sound in discussing the tragedy of forest fires in the Amazon, and I am sure all readers would agree that natural resource management is an extremely important subject that deserves close consideration in publications such as this one. Yet, in the final three paragraphs, Sophia establishes a false dichotomy between natural beauty and architectural grandeur, making a wildly universalistic claim that even “the smallest tree” is superior to the most excellent works of human art.

First and foremost, Sophia really ought to have read Mary Killeen McCans’s eloquent piece from this past April justifying the essential function of beauty in human life and the life of the world. In sum, we need artifacts like Notre Dame Cathedral to satiate our desire for the transcendent dimension of human life.

Here, I will attempt to supplement Mary’s brilliant prose: Our understanding of beauty cannot be limited to a wispy spiritualism in praise of the natural world in opposition to the glorious cathedrals and churches which human hands have made and have been consecrated to the Lord of all creation. Rather, in a certain sense, these sacred spaces are even more worthy of our adoration than natural wonders like the Amazon because they are quite literally the place where God dwells.

In truth, it is not in the least “self-idolatry” to mourn even the partial loss of monuments like Notre Dame Cathedral, for we Christians always recognize that our ability to create anything, especially to build a temple to house the Lord, is ultimately a gift from that very same sovereign Lord. Our activity is itself a selfless act of gratitude by which we thank God for not only breathing life into us, but for giving us the capacity to praise Him through our artistic talents, a capacity which He has bestowed upon the human race alone. The sublime artistry which our talents can bring into being is not ordered toward self-glorification like the Tower of Babel once was, but the glorification of God through the reception and enacting of His wondrous gifts.

As G.K. Chesterton once wrote in “The Everlasting Man,” “Art is the signature of man.” Birds, for example, do not have the capacity to create “seven styles of architecture for one style of nest”; only human beings can fashion such an elaborate system of design for their homes. Likewise, only human beings possess the “popular instinct called religion” that can turn such marvelous achievements into a means of worship.

Hence, the crux of my objection to Sophia’s incendiary polemic against human artistry lies not so much in what she actually wrote, but what she neglected to consider: that God Himself has ordained us to construct artifacts to praise His unspeakable name. A constant theme within the Old Testament is that the Mosaic Tabernacle — and later the Temple in Jerusalem — is a representation of the entire cosmos in microcosm. For example, the renowned first century Jewish historian Josephus wrote regarding the Tabernacle that every single element (that is, the supposedly “boring” stuff that the average reader of the Book of Exodus is inclined to skim) described by the sacred author, not only in the explicit construction of the Tabernacle but also in the priestly vestments and sacred vessels used for liturgical purposes, “is intended to recall and represent the universe.”

Crucially, the sacred author of Exodus informs us that the Tabernacle’s construction has been completed by stating that “Moses had finished the work” (40:33), immediately followed by the affirmation that “the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle” (40:34). It is no accident that the sacred author chose to employ this language moving from human activity to divine indwelling. God desires to live amongst us precisely within the particular sacred objects we construct for Him.

In other words, we find evidence as early as biblical Israel’s sojourn in the Sinai desert that glorifying the Lord through “human creativity” is precisely the opposite of the “self-idolatry” which Sophia wants us to believe it is. The churches and cathedrals of the present age are no different. The Catholic Church affirms that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is quite literally present in the Eucharistic species inside the Tabernacle upon the altar or close to it. I tremble in awe whenever I reflect upon this reality every time I walk into the Basilica or the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Chapel inside Knott Hall. God is so radically other that He exists outside of space and time, yet he loves the human race so much that He humbled Himself, “stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us,” as St. Athanasius of Alexandria wrote in his fourth-century work “On the Incarnation,” by taking the form of a person — the person of Christ. Likewise, St. Paul attests that this exalted God-man is so worthy of our praise and thanksgiving that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).

Indeed, one can and should be moved to wonder in God’s glory at the sight of a single small tree, not to mention a prodigious forest like the Amazon. However, the Tabernacle — the place where God dwells — is even more wondrous. Recall this truth the next time you walk into your dorm chapel, and bend your knee toward God.

Brennan Buhr is a senior Juggerknott from Albany, NY who studies theology, political science (but really, just theory) and history. He loves drinking cold glasses of skim milk and eating salad for dessert when he is not consuming “the living bread that came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51) at the Basilica. He can be reached at [email protected] or @BuhrBrennan on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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