Sourdough bread. Dalgona coffee. Home haircuts. Spring cleaning. Mask sewing and buying. Social distancing. Livestreamed Masses. This time of pandemic has introduced a whole host of unusual new realities to our lives. Some are amusing. Some are upsetting.
But one quarantine phenomenon that has taken Catholic social media by storm stands apart from the rest — the streaming show, The Chosen. I had downloaded the app for this show months ago but only recently watched an episode. I quickly realized that the sudden popularity of this show is exactly what we need in this time of pandemic — it gives us a glimpse at Jesus’s gaze of love.
The Incarnation through Art
Religious imagery has long been misunderstood by non-Catholics. Some worry that it leads to worship of images, or that it goes against the Old Testament edict against images (a debate which goes back as far as the iconoclast controversy). Others view religious imagery purely from an artistic standpoint — beautiful images that can be studied and enjoyed.
The Catholic perspective on religious images is staunchly opposed to the worship of them, but also sees them as something more than mere art. To understand the Catholic teaching on religious art, we have to consider it in light of the Incarnation.
Catholicism is not a spiritualized religion. It is a religion firmly rooted in the sacramental worldview – that is, being open to the ways that God reveals himself to us through his creation. From the Church’s early days, she has had to defend herself against heresies that resisted the belief that God would actually become incarnate in a bodily sense (because, they said, the body was an impediment to the soul), and even in more recent centuries, the Church has continued to fight the heresy that human nature — especially the body — are essentially “depraved”. Yes, humanity needs grace and redemption. But the Church teaches that there is a goodness to God’s creation — including humans, both body and soul. After all, we believe that our bodies will one day be glorified, just as Jesus’s and Mary’s were.
How does this relate to religious imagery? Religious art is a reaching of the heart toward the incarnation.
In the Incarnation God wedded himself, eternally to human nature. Humans have both a soul and a body. God confirmed the goodness of his creation in uniting himself to them. Through the Incarnation, God revealed himself in the created world. All waters are made holy (and can be used for baptism) because of the waters of the River Jordan, in which Jesus was immersed. All trees and wood point to the wood of the cross. The earth we walk on has taken on a new meaning, since it is the very earth that God himself walked on. Living in a family, eating and drinking, going to sleep, waking up, friendship, play, work – all of these have become means of sanctification because God Incarnate did them, too.
This is where the sacramental mindset comes from. It is not limited to the seven sacraments — it sees the full breadth of God at work through what we encounter with out five senses.
By the nature of our baptism, we long for union with God. Part of that union is physical presence and union – a union that is achieved in this world in the Eucharist, a foretaste of the heavenly union we long for. But if you have even been in love with someone and had that love returned – you know that lovers are always seeking each other, looking for each other, and longing for each other. I have been married for ten years, and if I am out driving and see a car that looks like my husband’s my heart skips a beat. Just the sight of a car that looks like his stirs my heart with love for him. Right now, I am writing this article while sitting at his “work from home” desk. Just sitting here, surrounded by his thick tomes about St. Augustine (he is an Augustinian scholar) makes me love him more. It makes me feel close to him, until we can spend time together later in the day.
This is what religious imagery and art accomplishes. A heart in love cannot settle for brief periods of time with the beloved. It is always reaching for reminders of the one it loves. His creation is God’s reaching out in love to us — a reality perfected in the Incarnation and the created things used in the Sacraments. And our art? It is one of the ways we respond to that, reaching for him. For some of us, that is in creating art, and for others it is by hanging it in our homes, reading it, listening to it, or watching it. Good religious art stirs our longing for God.
But, as with any relationship, our love for God is not a one-way street. As intense as our love and longing for him is, his is infinitely more intense for us. Truly good religious art does not just capture our longing for God, but also reveals something of his love for us.
Good religious art reveals a glimpse of the loving gaze of God.
A Gaze of Love
That brings us to The Chosen. In the first episode of the series, you meet a smattering of the Apostles (Simon/Peter, Andrew, and Matthew) and disciples (Nicodemus and Mary Magdalene). In this episode, we see a glimpse into what their lives were like before encountering Jesus. The only one to meet him in this episode is Mary Magdalene.
Mary is on the verge of total despair, having suffered for a long time (presumably since the loss of her father). She is plagued by demons, and she has been thrust into life as a prostitute (the back-story hints at what would now be considered human trafficking, resulting from her lack of familial protection). She has tried to cling to a particular passage of Scripture, but her remembrance of the love of her father and what he taught her about God is fading. She does not even go by the name Mary, anymore.
Nicodemus tries to heal her. A bar tender friend shows genuine concern. Although they care, they are incapable of what she needs most – a glance from Divine Love (made incarnate). In the moment when she is healed by Jesus, he calls her by name (a sort of foreshadowing of the moment when she encounters the risen Christ), and the intensity of his loving gaze causes the demons to flee. She is free, and he holds her in his embrace.
That moment is Christian art at its finest. Beautiful, truly human, stirring our hearts with love and longing for Christ.
But, perhaps more importantly — it reveals a glimpse at his intense love for us, too. The same eyes that looked with love at Mary Magdalene, still look with love and longing at each one of us. And in that gaze of love, we can find the peace we long for. We are his.