I do love my parish ever so much. It is, I suppose, a testimony to the sad state of American Catholic parishes that this is perhaps the first time I have ever belonged to a parish in which I feel truly so much a part of it. People actually stick around after Mass to visit and catch up on the week. We see each other outside of Mass at gatherings of various sorts: cultural, religious, athletic. It is a true joy.
The parish Church itself is a thing of beauty outside and inside. Though it shows signs of the years of neglect that it suffered when so many left the part of town in which it sits, it is nonetheless stunning. There is a soft grandeur about the place, a disarming austerity that I cannot help but fall in love with.
The altar is decorated with three impressive mosaics. Saints Peter and Paul flank a central mosaic of Christ Pantokrator, which stands ominously above a dome that covers a crucifix that stand above the tabernacle that sits above the altar. The symmetry is gorgeous.
If you’re familiar with the tradition of the icon of Christ Pantokrator you will know that they all share a kind of menacing air. This is not a depiction of Jesus sweet and mild. This is the Christ, the ruler of the universe, the all-powerful, which is one of the various translations of the Greek word “pantokrator.” A non-Catholic friend of mine from graduate school referred to it as the “switch blade Jesus.” You weren’t sure what he was going to do, but he looked mean.
Another alternative translation of Christ Pantokrator is Christ the all sustainer. This I find wonderful and an understanding of God that I think is largely lost on us today.
We’ve a tendency to view God in a kind of pseudo-deistic manner. The deists saw God as a divine watchmaker who created the world in all its intricacy and with an internal mechanism of propulsion. The Lord needed only to wind the world up, let go, and watch from a safe distance as the universe followed its inevitable motions. We allow ourselves the thought, perhaps, that He intervenes at His convenience. But these instances are nothing more than brief intrusions by God into “our” realm. Nothing could be further from the truly Christian understanding of God, of the God who sent His only son.
No, in fact, God is Pantokrator, the all sustaining God who did not just create us but also sustains us at every moment. Should God forget us for a millisecond we would cease to exist. The fact that we are is a direct result of the will of God at this moment…and this…and this…and now too. God sustains all that is everywhere and at all times, and it was this God that came down from heaven to become one of us. This is what is so amazing, and this is what struck me yesterday as I sat before the mosaic of Christ Pantokrator, for I noticed something quite lovely.
Prominent to the mosaic is Christ’s face and shoulders, his right hand raised in it iconographic manner. However, the gorgeous Italian Marble dome that sits above the tabernacle, wonderfully framing the golden, upright crucifix, obstructs the image of Christ Pantokrator from his knees down. And when one sits, at just the right angle, one discovers that the all-powerful, all-sustaining Christ God is…barefoot. He wears no sandals, but, discalced, stands as omnipotence personified yet simultaneously humble.
Oh, the mercy of God is a beautiful thing.