The Pope, The Ceiling, and Thinking Small

Michelangelo's Adam

The 1965 film “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” wherein Pope Julius II clashes with Michelangelo, is a wonderful reflection on faith, inspiration, and the trap of thinking small.

In the film, Pope Julius commissions Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with portraits of the twelve apostles and “appropriate decorations.” Michelangelo begins the work but is dissatisfied with the results. He destroys the work he had completed up to that point and flees Rome to hide from the Pope’s wrath.

While hiding in the hills of Carrara, and running from the pope’s soldiers, he pauses to look at the sky. Clouds converge to give shape to what will become Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam.” It is as if God himself is inspiring the artist to cover the entire ceiling with scenes from salvation history. Michelangelo sketches his plan on paper and sets off to find Pope Julius.

He finds the pontiff preparing to lay siege to a city. But as the artist unfolds his plan, the Pope becomes mesmerized, oblivious to the preparations for war that are going on around him.

Michelangelo explains that His Holiness’ plan was unworthy of the chapel and the artist’s talent. Michelangelo proposes to “cover the entire vault with glory.”

Pope Julius agrees, they settle on terms, and Michelangelo has the last word before he is escorted back to Rome.

“You see, I couldn’t give you something mediocre. Even if it’s all you asked for.”

As the artist leaves, an attendant says to the Pope, “it is not what your Holiness planned.”

“No,” replied the Pope, “I planned a ceiling, he plans a miracle.”

As we near the end of Advent, God begins to unfold His plan.

David contemplates building a temple to God. But like so many of us, David is thinking in a small and limited way. God’s plan is much larger than we can comprehend. He confirms that David is the king that will lead the Chosen People to greatness; they shall endure forever. Then God promises David an heir. It is David’s descendant who will build a house to the name of God. And upon that descendent God will establish the throne of His kingdom forever, and this Kingdom will include all nations.

To some extent God is speaking of Solomon, David’s son. But to a greater degree He speaks of Jesus, the Son of David.

God does not want a temple of cedar that will crumble to dust and fade away. His plan is for a temple of living stones. Mary shows us the way. Mary does not try to place limits on God’s plan, rather she allows Him to work a miracle through her. She becomes the living temple of the incarnate God. Through Mary, God’s plan of salvation is put into motion. Through Mary, God comes among His people and changes everything.

No longer will God be worshipped in one place, in one temple. Now we, the people of God, His Church, are the true temple. God is worshipped in the hearts and minds of all believers. As such, this is temple that will endure forever.

Pax Vobiscum

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