I have always loved the beach. Having grown up on an island, I enjoyed knowing that water was accessible from just about everywhere. I still think the best time to go to the shore is when there are not that many people around, which is often in the off-season. Deserted beaches allow one to have a total sensory experience with the feel of the sand, the smell of the air, the rhythm of the surf pounding on the shore, and the beauty of the sky meeting the water, especially if there is a sunrise or sunset taking place. I have always found the beach to be a spiritual experience because of the luminosity of the sun (or moon) shining on the water. The beauty of nature speaks to me of the presence of God.
Just recently I saw a photo (above) which was taken by a professional photographer.* It inspired me to think about the presence of God reflected in nature, especially at the seaside. I thought about why Jesus must have chosen fisherman as His first followers and also why He may have been at the Sea of Galilee so often: maybe the beauty of it captured His heart, too. The shimmering radiance of the sun on the water must have been very moving for Him, just as it is for me. And this radiance must have been what the apostles experienced coming from Him also, since He is one with the Creator of such beauty. Therefore the brightness of His love must have been what captivated those first apostles, motivating them to drop everything to follow Him.
Reflecting on the photo of the shimmering sun on the water reminded me of the liturgical season of Easter. This season is a time of special luminosity beginning with the resurrection, which changed everything the apostles thought they knew. They did not recognize the risen Jesus at first because the power of the resurrection had altered His appearance. He was luminous with the glory of God and the love with which He addressed them: “Peace be with you!” The resurrection events culminated with His ascension into Heaven, which we are celebrating next week.
The Scriptures are filled with examples of God’s light and the radiance of His presence. For example, God came to Moses through fire in the burning bush. Later Moses had to cover his face after encounters with God because he began to reflect His glory; Moses’ face was said to be too bright for others to look upon. Interestingly, the very first creative act in the Book of Genesis is when God said, “Let there be light.” This is significant: we should realize that we experience Him through light and luminosity. God was anticipating our creation, maybe thinking something like this: “Let them see me all around them. Let me illuminate them as to who I Am.”
Light is important to the identity of Jesus also. Jesus said: “I am the Light of the world.” (John 8:12) He chose to reveal His divinity with light at the Transfiguration. Peter, James, and John saw Him become radiantly, dazzlingly white as He was enveloped in the bright cloud which represented the Holy Spirit. This cloud was God’s protective and luminous presence, referred to as the Shekinah. Therefore it should not surprise us when Jesus resurrected and was filled with the brightness of the glory of God in a new way. Maybe this is why Mary Magdalene did not recognize Him; nor did the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who later said their hearts were burning within them as they spent time with Him. They burned with the brightness of the love reflected by Jesus and then experienced in His Eucharistic presence which He left with them.
When it was time for Jesus to ascend, He took the apostles to Bethany. He told them to make disciples of the nations and that they were to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28) He then ascended to the Father on a cloud (Acts 1:18). As they were filled with wonder, two angels appeared who asked them why they were standing there staring at the sky and then pointed out that Jesus had been taken up to Heaven. The angels were basically asking the apostles what they were waiting for. It is as if they are saying “Okay, you saw Him go up to Heaven, now get a move on and do what He told you to do.” The angels were reminding them that instead of simply standing there gaping at the sky, they had a responsibility to take what they had received and to go forth. It is a reminder that whenever we have an encounter with the living God or experience the beautiful, we must not get stuck there. The encounter is not just for us, but it is for us to share. It is to propel us outward in service. This is why artists create: they are sharing what has inspired them with the rest of the world.
The apostles understood the message of the angels. They went back to Jerusalem and they created a community of love in which they shared all things in common. They cared for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in their midst. They shared what they learned from Jesus by baptizing, healing, and forgiving, by bringing the gospel message to far-off lands, and by eventually giving their own lives for Jesus. They did not keep the beauty simply to themselves, but they shared the luminosity of the Ascension with those around them. That is what an authentic religious encounter does: it moves us outward to others in love. When we receive a sacrament, experience God reflected in the beauty of nature or during prayer, we are propelled outward to share that love with others.
The Ascension teaches us that the luminosity of love is not something only for the apostles. When we experience beauty or love we are not to stand there stuck in the moment. While we are meant to experience the wonder and awe of such a moment and to savor it, paradoxically it is best kept in our hearts by sharing it. It elicits a response. Love overflows. By sharing the love of God we are not only keeping it in our memory, but we are keeping it alive by giving birth to it again. In other words, the more we share it, the more beauty becomes part of us. It is the seed of holiness that is fed the light of love when it is shared. Not only do we grow in love, but those around us are affected by it, too.
The Ascension teaches us that we savor the light as we share it. We are not to simply enshrine it and stare at it, but we are to allow it to be emblazoned in our minds and hearts so that it becomes a part of us. That fiery, shimmering love gives light and life to those who are lonely, ill, downtrodden, or marginalized. It propels us to love better in all ways: it enhances our relationships and it enables us to love those who may be the most challenging to love. The luminosity of love helps us to forgive and to re-establish long injured relationships, to grow where we are stunted and to help others to do the same. It helps us to love the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, and to bring the gospel to others by simply living the power of our baptismal graces. We will literally shine with the love of Christ, which is why artists depict holy ones with halos.
Let us grow through our celebration of the Ascension of Jesus. He has not left us alone. In fact, it is because of the Ascension that He is able to send His Holy Spirit so that we are guided, comforted, and empowered as a community of love. If not for the Ascension we would not have as clear an understanding of how the Trinity works as a relationship of love. St. Augustine wrote aptly that the Trinity is an eternal exchange of love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit extended outward to us. We can look up into the sky and see His beauty, but we are also to look outward to share it with others. The Ascension helps us to realize that not even Jesus was to be ‘stuck’ in one moment of glory. He moved forward so that love could come to us through the graces given by the Spirit. We need to take the glory with us as part of us so that we can help others to see the beauty of God’s presence shimmering in creation, and the beauty of his presence lived by His children and shared with them as well.
May we have the eyes to see the luminosity of love all around us! May we see God’s presence in beauty and allow it to propel us outwards in love! May we be like the apostles, ready to see God’s presence, but also to allow Him to move us to service! May we be like the first disciples, working to build a community of love in our church! And may we let the luminous, shimmering beauty of the love of Jesus transform our hearts so we may love as He loves! Let us continue to meet in the beauty of the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
*The photographer of all three photos is Joe OHaire, a friend of mine who grew up in the same town as I did. He is a gifted photographer and I think of him as a true artist. The photos are of St. Maartens. I am grateful to have Joe's permission to use them in this blog, since the top photo was my inspiration. But the photos are also copyrighted material, so please do not copy them. Joe has a website in progress so for now you can find more examples of his beautiful photography on his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/eriaho
The icon is by another friend, Fr. William Hart McNichols and is The Risen Christ. I love this icon because it shows of color radiating outward, like the luminosity of love about which I was writing. It can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery-views/jesus-gallery/product/33-the-risen-christ. (A reminder that his work is also copyrighted.)
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Heart Speaks to Heart