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National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come. —Revelation 12:10

I didn’t expect to visit the National Shrine this past weekend. But we were lunching with a friend, who mentioned he’d visited the basilica, and there were hours to kill before our evening concert. So why not drive the extra twenty minutes to the largest Catholic Church in America?

I’ve spent much time at St. Patrick’s in New York, and visited three of the four major basilicas in Rome. I’ve seen more sacred art and stained glass than I can remember. So the National Shrine is almost deceptive, at first. It’s big, but it’s not flashy. It’s not overly ornate. But as we walked around, I noticed all the details—statues of saints and small side chapels. Mosaics that look like painted artwork. We sat for a while beneath a ceiling mosaic of Creation, of Adam and Eve surrounded by the oceans and the animals, protected by the hand of God.

I was told the basilica is “impressive.” I’ve seen impressive, but this one isn’t about the seeing. It’s a feeling, like God Himself is walking around with you. There’s no “wow” factor, until you really start to notice the details. And then it’s positively striking.

The most central mosaic sits behind the altar, and the one I kept circling back to—not just during my visit, but in reflection in the days since. I couldn’t figure it out, at first. It had to be Jesus, but didn’t look like the Jesus we’ve come to recognize. I thought it to be his Risen form, since his appearance changed after the Resurrection. That was an impressive enough interpretation, but the truth was even better.

Dominating the North Apse is Christ in Majesty, the Apocalyptic Christ. Perhaps the largest mosaic of Jesus in the world, the span from wounded hand to wounded hand measures 34 feet.
(National Shrine Interactive Map)

It’s almost uncomfortable to look at. It’s not Jesus as we know him, and he’s kind of mean-looking and judgmental. But that’s just what it is: the literal, ultimate judgment. There’s a whole great list of the mosaic’s details compared to scripture, which brings even more awe-inspired wonder to this 34-foot artwork.

We did some more wandering, including down into the crypt and the obligatory gift shop. But even as we left for the concert, “Christ in Majesty” lingered. Jesus is so often depicted as gentle and loving, which isn’t wrong. But the “Judgmental God” part gets overlooked. Maybe we conveniently forget, because death and judgement aren’t things we want to think about. But there it is—the largest mosaic of Jesus in the world.

I wish we’d had time to see more. The couple hours weren’t enough, and I don’t know the next time I’ll be in D.C. The National Shrine needs all day. I didn’t want to sit and pray, because I wanted to see all I could. But even walking around the nave is a type of prayer. Studying the artwork, and explaining what’s going on in each. Staring up at Creation, or at the majestic figure of the Risen Christ. It is… impressive.