It’s home to the Church founded by the Apostle Barnabas and guided by the likes of St. Ambrose and St. Charles Borromeo. It was historically more important than the city of Rome in the late days of the western Empire. It’s noticeably cleaner and more orderly than “other parts” of the great republic of Italy. Among Italian cities, it’s second in size only to the Eternal City, but the two would rival one another for their importance both past and present. If one, therefore, finds oneself in Italy for more than a month, Milan is a necessary stop.
Arguably, the two most famous features of this great northern Italian city are the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Nativity and the opera house La Scala, so “when in Rome… er, Milan”… La Scala, built in the 1770’s, is held – not just by the Italians – to be the most-respected opera house in the world, more than even the opera houses of Vienna, Versailles, Sydney, or New York. The saying, “you get what you pay for”, applies in a big way to La Scala, but no matter if you’ve got front-row seats or the seats up in the highest gallery, you’re in for a good show! Greats like Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, and Bellini have all vied to have their works debut at La Scala, and the producers and performers of these various operas have sought to match these masterpieces with the highest quality works seen by the human arts. Because of the nature of the structure, you just might have to stand through the whole of a 3-hour opera, but it’s a small price to pay for these beautiful works of art. People from Italy, France, Germany, Austria, and beyond (yes, even the US) come to be entertained by something beautiful. The songs, sets, and costumes take the audience to far-off lands, in our case, the far east with Madame Butterfly. The stories, to the extent that they reflect our common human experience, show us something of our common humanity and can teach us the value of what is good and true as well as illustrate, sometimes powerfully, the wickedness of evil.
Then, there’s Our Lady of the Nativity, the Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Milan. This masterpiece of human art, was begun in 1386, and took a mere 600 years to complete. Hey, if you’re planning to build a church, magnificent in beauty, worthy to last until the Lord returns, then what’s the rush? It was built over the ruins of at least 2 earlier churches that stood on the site from the time of the Apostles. Like La Scala, this masterpiece of human work communicates things to the human heart which words alone simply fail to do. Gothic cathedrals, like
Notre Dame in Paris and St. Stephen’s in Vienna, have a powerful effect upon the human spirit. The staggering heights of the pillars and visual “tricks” of the architects are meant to thrust your eyes up, and, ultimately, your spirit to the heavens, to the throne of God. The gothic cathedral of Milan is no exception. I’ve heard some say upon entering St. Peter’s Basilica (Roman, not Gothic, but it’s still beautiful, I guess) in Rome, “Oh my God!” They then, bashfully, cover their mouths and apologize profusely. I would argue, however, that this is precisely the response that the designers wish to illicit from us: “Oh my God! If this is the house of God, how magnificent must be the God who dwells here!” Here, one is taken up into another, more profound drama: the drama of God and man, of creation and redemption. Here, we are drawn into a story as well, but the story unfolding before our eyes is not simply a fictional tale of far-away places or characters with lives foreign to our own. Rather, it’s a non-fictional reality in which each of us has been personally invited to participate. At the tops of the skyward-reaching pillars stand saints from throughout the Church’s history. Each one of them has a story, a unique way in which they’ve received and responded to the invitation of God to live within this drama of sin and grace, good and evil, damnation and eternal salvation. They have lived it, and their lives – like their statues – are a perpetual witness to us that we, who share the same human nature, can also achieve great things like they did, but only if we join our hearts and minds, our thoughts, words, and deeds to the perfectly-good Will of our Heavenly Father. In the sacred worship which takes place in this magnificent place, we’re not just watching from afar; we’re to take part in the sacrificial offering of the spotless Lamb of God through the words and actions of the Sacraments.
Keeping these sites before our mind’s eye, we can see that both
gather us together within a story. One story, however, is more costly and more demanding, but also more rewarding, than the other. In the fictional tales of the opera, we are observers at a distance. We are the audience, that is, “the ones who listen” (from the Latin audire) The stories here can teach us about ourselves and our humanity, about good and evil, and the best stories can inspire and motivate us, but they don’t transform the core of who we are.
In the non-fictional reality of sacred worship, we are not simply “the crowd” or “spectators watching the Fr. So-and-So Show.” We are part of the event; we are participants in this Divine Comedy, this opera Dei (work of God). In the words
of the liturgy for Sts. Cyprian and Cornelius, “we are warriors now, fighting on the battlefield of faith, and God sees all we do; the angels [and saints] watch and so does Christ. What honor and glory and joy, to do battle in the presence of God, and to have Christ approve our victory.” When we are engaged, not simply observing as an outsider; the grace of God transforms us and elevates our human nature so that the “image and likeness”, according to which we were originally created, may shine out brilliantly from within, from that light of Christ that burns within us.