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In A Blaze Of Glory . . . The Blessed Sacrament Enthroned Above The Clouds

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The year was 1592. Pope Clement VIII was a man who felt the weight of the world on his shoulders. The Church was beset with troubles from all sides, with continuing civil war between Catholics and Protestants in France, the spread of heresy, the ever-present threat to Christian Europe from the Turks, and the bloody persecution of English and Irish Catholics living under the Protestant regime of Queen Elizabeth I.
On November 25, 1592, Pope Clement issued an encyclical summoning the clergy and laity of Rome to undertake with him a spiritual crusade of prayer in the form of the Forty Hours Prayer, a forty-hour cycle of continual Eucharistic adoration which he asked each major parish of Rome to carry out, coordinating with the other churches so that the adoration would pass in relay from one parish to another.
Intent to impress upon the people of Rome the urgency of the situation the Church was facing, he explained:
“Grave calamities of long duration to the Christian commonwealth, which, our sins deserving, daily grow worse, relentlessly stir up our pastoral solicitude, which we owe to the universal Church, with truly a great sense of sorrow of present evils, and a dread of impending dangers….
“Wherefore we vehemently exhort you in the Lord, whom we embrace with affection as our own particular sons, that you may devoutly and diligently occupy yourselves in this most salutary and very necessary practice of prayer. We are all paupers, and need the grace of God….Pray for the Holy Catholic Church, that errors having been dispelled, the truth of the one faith may be propagated to the entire world. Pray that sinners may come to their senses, and not be engulfed in the waves of vice, but be saved by the plank of penance. Pray for the King, and for the peace, and unity, of Christians….
“Lastly, pray for us, that God may support our infirmity, lest we succumb to such a burden, but grant us to assist His people, by word and example, and to fulfill the work of our ministry, that together with the flock entrusted to us, although unworthy, we may come to everlasting life, by the sprinkling of the Blood of the immaculate Lamb, which we offer on His Altar, and show to God the Father, that He might see in us sinners the face of His Christ, and spare us” (Latin text in Magnum Bullarium Romanum, ed. Laertius Cherubini, volume 3, Luxemburg, Andre Chevalier, 1727, pp. 24-25).
On November 30, the First Sunday of Advent, Pope Clement began the Forty Hours Prayer at the Vatican with a Mass in the Sistine Chapel. The deep emotions expressed by the Pontiff in his encyclical were evident as he carried the Blessed Sacrament afterward in procession from the Sistine Chapel to the Pauline Chapel, shedding tears as he did so. Returning to the chapel in the evening, he was likewise moved to tears as he fervently prayed, kneeling for over an hour on the first step of the altar.
Motivated undoubtedly by the gravity of the circumstances that had moved him to begin this endeavor of public supplication, Pope Clement VIII in his original instructions for the Forty Hours Prayer in Rome had prescribed a rather austere arrangement of the altar of exposition, with no more than six candles and six oil lamps and nothing else in the way of adornments.
But these instructions were not interpreted as binding upon other celebrations of the Forty Hours Prayer that were not part of the special cycle that the Pontiff had inaugurated in 1592. From the mid-sixteenth century onward, the Jesuits had been celebrating the Forty Hours Prayer with great splendor as a preparation for the beginning of Lent, with the intent of countering the licentious atmosphere of the Carnival season that preceded Ash Wednesday.
There were confraternities in Rome celebrating the Forty Hours Prayer on a monthly basis, who in the words of an English pilgrim writing in 1581 “set forth the B. Sacrament with so many lights, such jewels, and all manner of furniture of tapestry round about and on the ground, that it seemed a glimpse of Paradise” (Gregory Martin, Roma Sancta (1581), ed. George Bruner Parks, Rome, Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1969, p. 64 — spelling modernized).
An account of the pre-Lent Forty Hours Prayer at the Jesuits’ Church of the Gesù in 1595 describes an altar festooned with candles in silver candlesticks, reliquaries, and silver vases of flowers, with still more candles and vases of flowers lining the window sills, door frames, and cornices, in a church adorned with damask hangings and other fabrics. This effusive manner of celebrating the Forty Hours Prayer did ultimately win the admiration of Pope Clement VIII, who after attending this rite at the Church of the Gesù in 1599 spoke in praise of what he had witnessed there.
The century that followed proved to be a Eucharistic Renaissance for the Church, marked by diligent observance in the worthy and reverent celebration of the Mass, more frequent reception of Holy Communion, and an effulgence of Eucharistic adoration steeped in an unbounded aspiration to glorify the Real Presence of our Lord by surrounding the sacrament with an aura of majesty and beauty wrought by the handiwork of artists and artisans.
The Forty Hours Prayer rites in Rome entered a new era of even greater splendor when in 1628 the Italian Baroque sculptor, architect, and painter Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) designed for the Vatican’s Pauline Chapel a huge painted tableau that featured a “Glory,” a pictorial sunburst of bright clouds and sunbeams encircling the Blessed Sacrament, as if the Heavens had opened to reveal the Holy Eucharist. In Bernini’s rendering, the painted clouds and sunrays glowed with a visually stunning refulgence of real light provided by over two thousand oil lamps concealed behind the clouds.
Over the decades that followed, painted tableaux with the “Glory” became the norm for Forty Hours Prayer rites, to which were added scenes of Old Testament events that illustrated divine intervention and prefigured the Holy Eucharist. The “Glory” evoked the imagery of theophanies in the Bible, first and foremost the Transfiguration, wherein the face of Christ “shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light,” and “a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him’” (Matt. 17:2, 5).
In the Book of Habakkuk, in a passage interpreted by medieval exegetes as prefiguring Christ on the cross, the presence and intervention of God are expressed in the imagery of a bright thundercloud emanating shafts of light, i.e., lightning:
“God came from Teman, / and the Holy One from Mount Paran. / His glory covered the heavens. . . . His brightness was like the light, / rays flashed from his hand; / and there he veiled his power. . . . Was thy wrath against the rivers, O Lord?. . . when thou didst ride upon thy horses, / upon thy chariot of victory?. . . The sun and moon stood still in their habitation / at the light of thine arrows as they sped, / at the flash of thy glittering spear” (Hab. 3:3-4, 8, 11).

Turn To The King Of Glory

Similarly, the vision of God with which the Book of Ezekiel opens is heralded by a thundercloud emanating light:
“As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness round about it, and fire flashing forth continually . . . there was the likeness of a firmament, shining like crystal. . . . And above the firmament . . . there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness as it were of a human form . . . and there was brightness round about him. . . . Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face” (Ezek. 1:4, 22, 26-28).
Surrounding the Holy Eucharist with cloud imagery would have likewise evoked the visual manifestation in the Old Testament of the “Shekhina,” the special presence of God in the midst of the people of Israel visually revealed particularly by the “pillar of cloud” (Exodus 13:21; 33:9) that led and accompanied them through the Red Sea and across the desert.
The flames of the innumerable candles and oil lamps of the Baroque “Glory” for the Holy Eucharist, as well as the images of countless angels converging upon the Holy Sacrament — another almost universal characteristic of these sacred tableaux — would have also evoked Daniel’s vision of God as the “one that was ancient of days,” whose throne is “fiery flames”:
“A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him; / a thousand thousands served him, / and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him” (Daniel 7:9-10). At the outset of His public ministry our Lord declared to Bartholomew (Nathanael) that the time would come when the whole host of angels would be seen ministering to Him: “. . . you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” (John 1:51).
Thus to celebrate our Lord’s continued presence with us now, in the Most Blessed Sacrament, by surrounding the Holy Eucharist with a blaze of glory is in fact a visualization of the glorification that Christ prophesied would be His following His Resurrection: “Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee…and now, Father, glorify thou me in thy own presence with the glory which I had with thee before the world was made” (John 17:1, 5).
In the Old Testament, God is repeatedly spoken of as enthroned above and riding upon the clouds: “Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered…lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds” (Psalm 68:1, 4). And so it is that at His trial before the Sanhedrin, Christ underlines His affirmative reply to the high priest’s question as to whether He is the Son of God by adding, “…you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64).
What the Baroque “Glory” achieved was to express artistically what can only be seen with the eyes of faith. It was directed to the ultimate purpose for which all Baroque sacred art was conceived: “. . . the baroque, like the gothic, strove to elevate the mind to the infinite. . . .” (D. C. Barrett, “A ‘Jesuit Style’ in Art?,” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, volume 45, n. 179, Autumn 1956, p. 340).
As we, like Pope Clement VIII, contemplate Holy Mother Church beset by imminent dangers, let us heed his timeless summons to turn to the King of Glory in His Most Holy Sacrament for deliverance.

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