Eyes joyfully drawn upward

By | May 10, 2013

When you’re in church, do you ever catch yourself looking up?

It might be because you’re distracted, but many times there’s a lot to see up there.

For example, at least two parishes in our diocese have paintings of Mary in the center of their ceilings. Other churches have vaulted apses over their altars. (An apse is the end of an aisle of a church that ends in a vaulted ceiling.) An apse often contains artwork — ranging from angels to saints to Bible scenes. St. Francis Xavier Cathedral has a towering mural of the crucifixion behind its altar.

Other churches, like St. Joseph Chapel at the diocesan offices, have ceilings with wooden supports that look like the ribs of a boat — both a structural support and an illusion to the church’s role as the barque (boat) of Peter. Still others have stained glass windows that emphasize the cross hanging there.

This weekend, our eyes might rise instinctively as we imitate the disciples at the Ascension. “(As) they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight,” the first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, tells us. It adds that the disciples kept staring at the sky until angels nudged them back to reality. No doubt, many of them kept glancing upward for the rest of their lives, waiting for the Lord to “return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”

That’s why most churches have some sort of design that draws our eyes upwards, so that we gaze toward where Jesus has gone before us.

Since the Book of Genesis, we have believed in a heaven that rests above the earth, arching overhead. “God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters, to separate one body of water from the other.’ And so it happened: God made the dome, and it separated the water above the dome from the water below. God called the dome ‘the sky’” (Gn 1:6-7).

In Hebrew, the word shamayim is used in Genesis 1 to refer to “heaven” or “heavens.” Shamayim is also used in Hebrew Scriptures to refer to the dwelling place of God and to the place where the righteous go at the end of this life — such as Elijah in that fiery chariot. In ancient times, heaven was believed to be a dome that covered the earth.

We see this idea of a heavenly dome in church architecture and churches that have a huge dome (such as St. Peter’s in Rome) or a semi-dome over an altar or side shrine. Byzantine architecture was the basis for these domes and Eastern Orthodox churches often portray Christ in glory — the Pantocrator — in golden mosaics that adorn the inside of a church dome.

Even if you don’t have a dome in your church, what is there that draws your eyes upward? Does it remind you of heavenly places? How does it remind you that Christ “was taken up to heaven” as Luke’s Gospel tell us, and will return from there? Finally, does it help you to do as the disciples did after the Ascension: “return to Jerusalem (your own daily Jerusalem) with great joy.”

Kasten is an associate editor of The Compass and the author of “Linking Your Beads: The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers.”

 

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