Atlas and the Infant

In the heart of Midtown Manhattan lies a juxtaposition of cosmic irony. On the west side of Fifth Avenue, between 50th and 51st Streets, stands Atlas, a four-story bronze statue of the great Titan of ancient Greek mythology, who was condemned by Zeus to uphold the heavens for all eternity after the Titans’ defeat in the epic Titanomachy. Atlas braces, struggling under the mighty weight of his charge, before the entrance to one of the most iconic sites in New York City—Rockefeller Center—which is flanked on three sides by some of the world’s largest and most influential investment banks, law firms, and media companies.

On the fourth side of Rockefeller Center, though, directly across Fifth Avenue from Atlas, is a building of a different genus: Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, the mother church of the Archdiocese of New York and the most-visited Catholic cathedral in the United States. Built by the faith and sweat of Catholic immigrants in the 19th century, the cathedral is a brick and marble temple in what is otherwise a jungle of concrete and steel. To this day, its soaring neo-Gothic spires—which once rose high above the nascent New York City skyline when the church was first consecrated in 1879—lift the eyes and spirit heavenward in a way that the sleek, sterile lines of skyscrapers are unable. Its every square inch exists to facilitate the reverent praise of God.

At first glance, the placement of Atlas—an obvious artifact of pagan mythology—straight across from the Cathedral could be read as a kind of secular imposition upon sacred ground. Atlas, after all, was built nearly sixty years after the completion of St. Patrick’s, at the height of the modern skyscraper boom, and as a kind of ode to the majesty and strength of man. Moreover, the demi-god’s grimacing face glares outward such that, when the Cathedral’s main doors are open, he can survey in clear view the Mass celebrant all the way in the sanctuary.

Statue of the Holy Child behind the high altar (click to enlarge)

But a deeper look inside St. Patrick’s brings into sharp relief the paradox of its apposition to the Titan. About 80 yards in front of Atlas, directly behind the Cathedral’s high altar, is a small statue of the Christ Child, bearing a gentle visage and standing with an orb in his hand. To the infant Lord, Atlas is not a threat but a pity: he, half man and half god, teeters under the cumbersome weight of the heavens. Meanwhile, the Holy Child of heaven and earth, fully man and fully God—the one in whom “everything in heaven and on earth was created” (Col 1:16)—holds the cosmos in his palm. For the Christian, the heavens are no back-breaking burden but our final destination, and the earth is no paradise but a turnpike, the way by which we pass to our celestial end.

The contrast here unveils one of the richest and most fundamental of Christian doctrines, namely that God’s grandeur and power are never in competition with those of his creation. In our age of widespread religious ignorance, it is easy enough to think that greatness is a zero-sum game—that for man to thrive, deity must diminish. Indeed, on the pagan account, the gods regularly fought amongst each other for power, and often at humanity’s expense. But the profundity of the Christian claim is that all creatures exist by participating in the Creator’s boundlessly perfect act of existence, which means that all creaturely goodness always proceeds from the divine goodness. And as Bishop Robert Barron is wont to exposit, this reality is most radiantly manifest in Christ, in whom complete divinity and complete humanity inhere with perfect harmony. Human excellence, then, reaches its highest pitch by cleaving to the person of Christ.

Returning to Midtown Manhattan, we are reminded that the Rambo-like muscles and the power, pleasure, honor, and wealth which Atlas and the surrounding Rockefeller Center acclaim are—good as they be—simply passing glories. Rather, it is grace and truth that are eternal, which came to us through a certain infant (cf. Jn 1:17) who would grow up to bear upon his shoulders not the weight of the heavens but the tonnage of sin so as to open the doors of heaven to humankind. And, all the more, though the three-foot child who dwells 80 yards from the 45-foot giant is just an icon, the real McCoy lovingly descends seven times a day to the high altar at St. Patrick’s under the appearance of a mere wheaten disc. That displays a divine power before which both we and Atlas can only tremble in awed obeisance.

Photo by Jean-Christophe BENOIST (CC BY 3.0)

From Dominicana Journal