Oh the Places You’ll Go: Barcelona

Reflections from Dr. Howell

We disembarked from the ship and began our gambol around the streets of Barcelona. After an essential drug store stop, we hurriedly visited the quirky Casa Milà and the Casa Battló, which make you feel you’re in Disneyland instead of a neighborhood; and then the fun, elegant Parque Güell – our minds obviously transfixed by the peculiar artistry of the architect whose name is synonymous with Barcelona (well, unless soccer is your obsession), Antoni Gaudí. We were hustling in order to maximize our time at our primary destination, the famous Sagrada Familia.

There’s nothing like it on planet earth, much less among churches, and cathedrals. Massive and mind-boggling, you can’t decide if you should gawk or chuckle, sigh or shudder. Awe is inevitable. And it’s not even finished yet, although they started 141 years ago. I read that admission tickets yield $25 million a year – used toward its completion. And Gaudí, the genius behind it all, has been dead almost 100 years.

I could feel exasperated by how long it’s taking… but then again, it’s a parable of how God’s mystical church is always under construction. And I think of Reinhold Niebuhr’s wisdom: “Nothing worth doing can be accomplished in a single lifetime; therefore we are saved by hope.”

A camera, even if you have the professional kind, is useless, as are your eyes, to take it in. Where to look? Up? This side? That direction? Do you zoom out to probe the vastness, the dizzying height and width of this tower or that nave? Or do you zoom in and fixate on this small but stunning detail? Try to fathom all the tiny, subtle details that are too high up for anyone to see – recalling that in the medieval cathedrals there is always sculpture and painting not visible to anyone except God, reminding us that it was created for God, and that all that hidden recesses in our lives are for God too.

The church is named for what is depicted on the Nativity Façade: the holy family. The whole idea of God incarnate, in a family – like the rest of us – moves me. We may or may not all have children ourselves. But we are all the products of some family, small or large, healthy or kooky, the cauldron in which we all of us came to be who we actually are. That God came to us in and through a family, albeit what we call the “sacred” family, is so hopeful, embodying, realistic.

I like to think about Jesus as a son, and a brother in a family with the usual challenges, chores and simple pleasures of keeping the fire tended, eating dinner, playing, squabbling, praying, embracing in the face of fear or loss. The Bible portrays almost all the families in its long, sprawling narrative as highly dysfunctional. Could Jesus – if he truly came to be one of us, one with us – have had a squeaky clean, entirely peaceful, healthy family? Didn’t they have their moments? Mark 6:3 provides the names of some, but not all of his siblings: James, Joses, Judas, Simon – and his sisters (how many?) were left unnamed! All together in a one or two room house in Nazareth?

What more compelling witness could there be to the glory of Christ than that his own brother James became not just a Christian but the leader of the Church dedicated to the resurrection of his brother. If anyone could have said Trust me, he’s just a guy… it would have been James.

Speaking of moments: Matthew 12:46-50 reports on the day Jesus was teaching and healing – and someone interrupted him to say “Your mother and brothers are outside.” We would expect him to have the ushered to seats of honor in the front! – but Jesus replies “Who is my mother, and who are my siblings? Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, sister and mother.” Indeed, although we fawn over preachers and literature that promises Jesus will make our families swimmingly happy, Jesus pretty clearly came to forge a new family, not kin by blood but by God’s Spirit – something profoundly hopeful for those from dysfunctional or broken families.