While it may only be wishful thinking, one suspects most Americans look with hope to the transition from the annus horribilis of 2020 to a period of stability, health, and goodwill. COVID 19 may have caused the most obvious chaos, but its second- and third-order effects, and a number of unrelated events, made for a spectacular drama that tested our nation. A financial free-for-all, international and domestic turmoil, crises of trust in cultural institutions, and a lapse in civility frayed the bonds connecting the members of a truly great society. And lest we thought we were having too much of a good thing, snowstorm Gail dumped up to four feet of the white stuff on the northeast!
There are wise people—some of them very influential—who suggest that what I have described is not such a bad thing; on the contrary, it is the way of the universe. The great Heraclitus of Ephesus (6th c. BC) tells us to “listen” to the divine Logos (reason) which reveals the inner unity of creation. For him, conflict is not so much an aberration as the very nature of things. Strife is only tension between apparent opposites that gives way to a new order. Thus, “male” and “female” bring about new life; the opposition of massive weights enables cathedrals, bridges, and buildings to rise. The fusion of atomic elements releases an enormous supply of energy; checks and balances promote justice and freedom in a nation; and competing interests generate flourishing economies that benefit all parties. There is, of course, some truth to this, but it comes at a great price: the countless lives destroyed or thrown into upheaval as a result.
A century before, Anaximander had argued that the physical world is the result of a divine, infinite hodgepodge that separated into various elements—earth, water, fire, and air—by means of a vortex. The ancients were fascinated by this phenomenon; we observe it in everything from swirling galaxies to the drain in our kitchen sink. Its spinning motion does everything, from dividing cream from skim milk, to separating cells, plasma, and platelets within blood. The eventual combination of these elements by various dualities—hot and cold, wet and dry—“created” the heavenly bodies and all they contain. Perhaps: but the great thinker never explains exactly how this happens.
Like the philosophers, Biblical authors were also concerned about the experience of chaos and conflict in the world. Nevertheless, they were convinced that a personal God, distinct from the material world, brought it into being, and imposed order upon it. Furthermore, they insist that God would bring about not so much a constant cycle of conflict and resolution, as the perfection of the created world. Human beings, in turn, would attain happiness with him and each other: what we call the beatific vision. This is one of the many themes comprising the celebration of the Epiphany (the shining forth of God’s incarnate Son).
Our art work this week is Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi, regarded as the greatest incomplete painting ever made. The Master’s genius was rivaled only by his scientific insight and, perhaps less remarkably, a penchant for distraction (hence the unfinished work). Less known about him is that he got his start in Florence as an organizer of public pageants celebrating Catholic liturgical festivals (one being the Epiphany). According to Walter Isaacson, the powerful Medici family commissioned Leonardo to design sets, costumes, and theatrical devices that delighted eye: the soul caught up in the wonder of almighty God. A holy dynamism informed his approach to the subject. Leonardo was frustrated by his rivals’ comparatively static depiction of the wise men’s visit to the Christ Child. What could be a better challenge to the inert, stagnant vision of the Epiphany than—a vortex? In a sketch for the painting, the artist arranged no fewer than sixty figures swirling around the Holy Family and the magi, with all manner of humanity responding to the miracle of God become Man. Leonardo regarded facial expression as the true reflection of the soul. And so, the onlookers—my favorite being the elderly St. Joseph—display an array of emotion, from cluelessness to reverence, amazement to perplexity, confusion to contemplation. What does the ruined arch in the background symbolize? Paganism? The Davidic
monarchy? Enmity between the sacred and the secular?
Although Leonardo probably never intended this, his painting certainly speaks to the time in which we live. One can only imagine the reaction of at least a dozen governors to the spectacle of so many mask-less people—oh, the horror!—congregating in such a small space. No doubt they would have called out the National Guard to suppress such an outrageous crime against social distancing! But therein lies the lesson. The presence of God is found, not in an escape from, but in the press of, humanity. And like the vortex of a hurricane, where is the place of peace and tranquility? In the very center, where we behold Jesus, the darling of the Madonna.
P.S. If Leonardo’s art is not enough to give us hope, consider this. Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, of the Vatican Observatory at Castel Gondolfo, reveals a fascinating possibility. According to his calculations, the “Star in the East” that guided the Magi all those years ago was arguably the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn, much like the one we witnessed just before Christmas this year. What can we take from this? The good Lord is guiding us, even today.