A Cloud of Witnesses

The house I grew up in was filled with little bits of our lives, and the lives of those around us. Photos of friends and family, as well as my father’s artwork, graced every wall. Here was mother’s college diploma; there was the pottery cup my brother made in second grade; in the corner, my sister’s drill team photo. Above it all was a crucifix that announced to the world that this was a Catholic home.

The Familiar Touches of Family

Many, if not most, homes are like that: housing small reminders of significant events in our lives, distance markers on our life's journey.

Our parish church is exactly the same. As our spiritual home and center, it contains the same familiar touches of family that mark our own homes. Virtually every church has an icon of the Blessed Mother, for example, pointing to her Son's sacrifice on the Cross and calling us to worship. In many places, the nave of the church is filled with artwork, stained glass windows, and statues depicting the patron saint of the parish, scenes from Sacred Scripture, or the depiction of Christ's journey to Golgotha in the Stations of the Cross. Just as mementos of family members and family photos remind us of our connection to others, we need icons and reminders in our churches to help guide our hearts and minds to God.

Regarding icons, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

All the signs in the liturgical celebrations are related to Christ: as are sacred images of the holy Mother of God and of the saints as well. They truly signify Christ, who is glorified in them. They make manifest the “cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) who continue to participate in the salvation of the world and to whom we are united, above all in sacramental celebrations. Through their icons, it is man “in the image of God,” finally transfigured “into his likeness,” who is revealed to our faith. So too are the angels, who also are recapitulated in Christ. (#1161)

Praying at Holy Mass in place after place, I find the icons and artwork really does remind me of my family, both here on earth and in heaven. In my home parish, my late pastor, Monsignor Vincent J. Wolfe, understood the importance of symbols and icons in creating a sacred space. There is a very large crucifix overlooking the altar, dominating the entire space. A golden Holy Family looks upon the altar from behind the faithful, while the Holy Eucharist is reserved in a golden, life-sized replica of the Ark of the Covenant. To pray the rosary in the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans in Shreveport, one need only follow the stained glass windows where each panel contains a Rosary Mystery, a story captured in light and color. My college parish church, St. Anthony's, in College Station, was built in the old style, and is filled to the brim with icons and statues — reminding me again that when we hear Holy Mass, we are not the only ones worshipping.

Image and Word

Of course, the icons and artwork are never meant to be used apart from Sacred Scripture, a point the Catechism is quite specific about:

“The beauty of the images moves me to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God.” Similarly, the contemplation of sacred icons, united with meditation on the Word of God and the singing of liturgical hymns, enters into the harmony of the signs of celebration so that the mystery celebrated is imprinted in the heart's memory and is then expressed in the new life of the faithful. (#1162)

When we see an image of our Lord on the Cross, our minds should fly at once to the Gospel and then to our own hearts. The image helps us place ourselves at the foot of the Cross so we can draw nearer to Him. Likewise, the outstretched arms of a statue of Our Lady reminds us we are her children (“Woman, behold your son” [Jn 19:26]), by virtue of our adoption through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Image and word illuminate each other, teaches the Catechism (#1160).

Reflection of the Heavenly Liturgy

In fact, all artwork, images, and icons are centered on Christ, and therefore enable us access to the Divine in ways unapproachable by other means.

The sacred image, the liturgical icon, principally represents Christ. It cannot represent the invisible and incomprehensible God, but the incarnation of the Son of God has ushered in a new “economy” of images: Previously God, who has neither a body nor a face, absolutely could not be represented by an image. But now that he has made himself visible in the flesh and has lived with men, I can make an image of what I have seen of God…and contemplate the glory of the Lord, his face unveiled. (Catechism, #1159)

All this brings me back to my parish church. As the pews fill with my church family on earth, the reflection of the heavenly liturgy seems to bring them to life in my mind's eye. I'm more aware that we are not alone here in time and space, but connected across those barriers with God's family. St. Therese looks on with an armload of roses while St. Michael guards the door against the Enemy. Christ mounts the altar again, His quiet strength visible even now in the corpus on the cross and the holiness of our priest. As if to reassure us, our Blessed Mother seems to nod toward the altar with a smile, urging us to “Pray, pray, pray, little children.”

These “clouds of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) inspire us to once again lift up our hearts, and feel at home in our Father's House.

© Copyright 2006 Rosary Army

Mickey Addison is a career military officer, and has been a catechist at the parish level since 2000. He and his wife have been married for 19 years and they have two children. He can be reached at addisoncrew@gmail.com.

This article was previously published on the Rosary Army’s website and is used by permission.

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