Work of Art
Some things you just can’t teach. For an athlete, it’s speed. You either have it or you don’t. For many people, it’s creativity-the artistic touch. Some people only have skill enough to stay inside the lines while painting by the numbers. Others have an uncanny ability to see and hear what the rest of us don’t, and then to express it all in amazing ways. These are the artists, and their wondrous creativity is a gift from God.
For centuries, religious art has held a dominant place in the field of the creative arts. Artists like Raphael and Rembrandt often focused on sacred subjects. Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel depicted the story of salvation history from the creation of man to judgment day. His Pieta, the Blessed Mother holding her dead son Jesus, may be the most profound sculpture ever cut from a block of stone. Musical composers-Bach, Handel, and Mozart to name just a few-have written a treasure trove of sacred symphonies, oratorios, and hymns. In literature, Dante’s Divine Comedy takes his readers on a journey into the three realms of the afterlife. Modern day artists find new ways to give expression to the sacred. And then there are the nameless artisans who have created and adorned our sacred spaces-churches, temples, and mosques. Each is its own work of art.
Through sacred art, man offers his creativity for the praise and honor of our Creator. It is the human spirit at its best. Unfortunately, man has not always been at his best in his relationship to God. At various times in history, human sacrifice has marked, and marred, religious practice. Its practitioners believed that blood sacrifices could please the gods or at least stay their wrath. Victims were buried alive in the foundations of structures-possibly even the Great Wall of China-to protect against disasters and attacks. Human sacrifices were offered to obtain help in battle. Some cultures practiced child sacrifice. In ancient Carthage, parents are said to have vowed a child sacrifice in hopeful return for a favor. Their children were placed alive in the arms of a statue and then rolled into a flaming pit. Organized religions condemned these practices as defying the notion of a loving and giving God. Civilized society views human sacrifice as primitive and barbaric.
And that’s what makes some recent comments from politicians so difficult to understand. Earlier this year, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi remarked that the right to abortion is “sacred ground” to her. She is not the only one who has used the term. Recently, Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis picked up on the same language. In Iowa, candidates for governor prayed in a church for an increase to abortion access. Surely they were not speaking about offering human sacrifices to false gods. But the word “sacred” does not fit in either a literal or a figurative sense. And neither does praying for more access to abortion.
The word “sacred” comes from a Latin word means to set apart or dedicate, usually for the worship of God. It is associated with holiness and reverence. By contrast, abortion is the rejection and destruction of God’s gift of human life. It turns a woman into a physical, spiritual, and emotional battleground. However tragic, abortion only serves self-interest. It is as far from sacred as far can get. God does not want the blood of the innocents for any reason.
Five hundred years ago, the Aztecs in Mexico worshipped the sun god Huitzilopochtli. Believing that the god needed blood to replenish strength lost from battling the sun, the Aztecs sacrificed up to 250,000 humans annually. For the re-dedication of a temple, the Aztecs may have sacrificed as many as 80,000 victims. Into this culture of death was born a peasant, Quauhtlatoatzin his native name, Juan Diego the name given following his conversion.
In December 1531, while on his way to religious instruction, he stopped near the base of Tepeyac hill to enjoy the wondrous sound of singing birds. Suddenly, a voice called. Climbing the hill, Juan Diego saw a lady, her garments shining like the sun, and calling herself the Mother of the True God, the Creator of all things. She asked Juan to tell the bishop to build a church at the place. Not surprisingly, the bishop was reluctant. Back and forth Juan Diego went until the bishop asked for a sign. The Blessed Lady directed Juan to pick flowers at a spot where flowers were barely expected to grow at all, let alone in winter. The Blessed Mother re-arranged the picked flowers in Juan Diego’s tilma, a cactus-fiber tunic, and he brought them to the bishop. When Juan unfolded the tilma to allow the flowers to fall, the bishop dropped to his knees. On the tilma was the image of the Blessed Mother-Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Some describe the image as a work of art, but it is far more. Cactus fibers normally disintegrate within 60 years; the tilma has remained perfectly intact for five centuries. It has survived a bomb blast. Scientists describe the image on the tilma as a painting without paint. Some even say that images of Juan Diego and others can be seen within Our Lady’s eyes.
But the message of the tilma is more important than the scientific inquiries that have surrounded it. Our Lady stands blocking the sun, a rebuff to a false sun god that demanded human blood for its food. With the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the human sacrifice of the Aztecs stopped. In the next ten years, ten million people converted to Christianity. And more, Our Lady wears a black belt, the Aztec pregnancy belt. Through it, Our Lady has identified for all time what is truly sacred: a woman’s womb. In that sacred space, God fashions His greatest work of art: human life. Every life is unique. Every life is a masterpiece.
Almost 1500 years before our Blessed Mother appeared to Juan Diego, she traveled the difficult path from Nazareth to Bethlehem. In her sacred space, she carried her babe Jesus. Like us, He was a work of art. Yet He was even more. He was the Artist. He still is.
As we celebrate His birth, let us also celebrate His sacred art: life. Merry Christmas!
Paul Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on pro-life topics. He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois, and have six kids.
© 2013 Paul V. Esposito. Culture of Life. Permission to copy and distribute for pro-life purposes is granted. Comments? Visit us at http://www.the-culture-of-life.com/