Friday, February 7, 2020

Too Catholic?

Copyright © Edward Riojas

At least three times within the span of a month, the question was asked of artwork: “Is it too Catholic?,” and here I am, sitting in front of a project that contains the Latin text, “... ecclesiam catholicam...”

Whether it is an in-grown Lutheran fear, angst against Papal idiocracy, or simply an attempt to get a handle on the unknown, being “too Catholic” is a recurring question, especially where art is concerned; especially in the Lutheran Church. Typically, this would be addressed during an adult Bible study, or in a pastoral e-mail string. Being a producer of such images, however, brings the oft-needed opportunity to explain a few things.

In a recent interview for LCEF’s “Interest Time” magazine, I was asked, “[What] makes a piece of art distinctly Lutheran?” Of course I started with a Smart Alec response of “When it has enough Luther’s Seals,” but then I got serious. Sacred art confesses a great deal [to church visitors], and it does so long before any parishioner opens their mouth.

Good Lutheran art does not simply ride a comfy path between Roman Catholicism and American Evangelicalism – it clings to Holy Scripture while redressing the errors of other denominations. Thus, we show a crucified Christ – for that is what we preach – and we care not if Evangelicals get squeamish. We also keep elaborate crowns off of Mary’s head, refusing her preeminence, and we care not if Rome takes offense.

A great deal of Lutheran artistic purpose clings mightily to the Church Catholic – the whole Christian Church on earth – and not the Roman Catholic Church. The terms are not synonymous, but are always a point of confusion. Luther never wanted to relinquish the word “catholic,” and neither should we.

Things can get sticky, however, when folks take certain images as an indication that we are somehow realigning ourselves with Rome. Crucifixes – crosses holding depictions of the dead [or dying] Christ – are often seen as the crux of the problem. If I got a nickle every time someone chimed, “Can’t we just get past the cross?,” I would be a wealthy man. But we will certainly be spiritually bankrupt the minute we sanitize the very blood that bought us. So we remind our stupid, forgetful selves of the cost of our salvation with an image of our Lord on the cross. No, we don’t re-crucify Him every Sunday. Instead, we confess Christ crucified and we daily kill the Old Adam.

Of course, that catholic-thing rears itself in other ways. Images of saints bearing halos, too many Biblical images in the sanctuary [however many THAT might be!], beautiful vestments, and using Latin [gasp!] seem for many to be too far off the Lutheran reservation.

To this layman, however, Latin rocks. Phrases like “Te Deum” and “Agnus Dei” and “Magnificat” uplift me, even without the benefit of being a linguist. A current Ecclesiastical Sewing project on which I am working is rich in this ancient language, while confessing the “credo” of the Church Catholic. The ‘Apostles project’ will have, in part, a gorgeous, vintage set of Apostle’s symbols interwoven with the Apostles Creed. It will be augmented by yet more designs of my own hand, making it arguably the most comprehensive collection the vestment manufacturer will offer.

The ancient symbols and old language and deliberate richness of the set will, in themselves, remind us that we are not islands of rightly-preached theology; that the train of redeemed saints extends backward into time immemorial and forward to the ranks of those who will, in time, believe. This is true Christian Church; the Church Catholic; the “Ecclesiam Catholicam.”

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