You may have heard it said that there are two kinds of people in the world. There are those who go through life with their arms wide open, embracing whatever comes their way. There are others who journey with their arms held tightly against their chests, protective and defensive. Maybe most of us are mixtures of both postures—sometimes unafraid and open to life, and at other times we are more fearful, afraid of losing what we have. These days, nothing seems sure anymore. Everyone is calling for change, though not necessarily the same change. Things appear erratic, unpredictable, and uncertain. It’s no wonder so many of us may feel like withdrawing into ourselves and protecting what is ours.
But for Christians, there is certainty; there is unchanging truth; there is peace. Listen to what St. Paul writes in his letter to the church at Phillipi: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” St. Paul reminds us that we live in the loving, open embrace of God here and now. He calls us to return that embrace in an openness of spirit, holding nothing back. It’s interesting that one of the first postures in Christian worship is one in which the arms are open wide and raised above the shoulders. It’s how a child raises their hands to be picked up by their daddy. Some of the oldest Christian frescoes in the Roman catacombs depict the faithful praying to God in this way. There are 153 such frescoes of Christians in the “orans” posture. “Orans” is Latin for “one who prays.” Catholics see our priests lead us in prayer this way at each Mass. Arms wide open, lifted up, praising and thanking God for His gifts and open to receiving whatever His goodness sends to us. Our posture in prayer is an outward expression of how our hearts and minds are formed towards God. The earliest Christians knew that and their paintings reflect a triumphant and hope-filled worship despite their persecutions.
We also see this “open to grace” posture in the architecture of Saint Peter’s Square in Rome. The Renaissance artist Giovanni Bernini designed a colonnade of 284 stone columns which appear to reach out and gather in the faithful as they approach the church home of our Catholic faith. Robert Browning described this effect in his poem “Christmas Eve” when he wrote “with arms wide open to embrace the entry of the human race.” This goes against what many have recently said about all the walls around the Vatican. If you’ve been there, you know that isn’t true. Catholics also know the iconic black and white photograph of Blessed Miguel Pro, a Mexican Jesuit priest, who was murdered for his faith by a government firing squad on November 23, 1927. Just before the guns fired on him, Fr. Pro flung his arms open wide and shouted, “Vivo Cristo Rey!” or “Long live Christ the King!” Of course these cultural images of openness and embrace have as their source, the One Source of all Life and Truth and Love: Christ on the Cross. At the very moment when He should have been most afraid and most defensive, Jesus’ love for us held His arms wide open to pour Himself out completely for you and for me. He held nothing back, embracing His Father’s will, surrendering Himself to Love. We are called to imitate Christ, not just when life is easy and opening ourselves to it feels safe and good. But all the time, in every moment of joy and in our fears and hurts as well. As St. Paul says, “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything…” The God of peace waits with His arms wide open, ready to pick you up.
“The love we give is the only love we keep.” —Elbert Hubbard