I lived in Dublin in the early 1990’s in a place called Leeson Park. The Jesuits had a house just up the road from us on Leeson Street. About the time I arrived there they were renovating their house and decided to clean up some of the paintings also. There was one painting however that they paused over. It was grimy and covered with a thick layer of varnish and soot but someone felt it might be of value so they called in an expert, Sergio Benedetti from the National Gallery. Benedetti got very interested and asked where it came from and after much investigation by lots of experts it was confirmed beyond doubt that this was indeed the long lost painting of “The Taking of Christ” by Caravaggio of Rome. His painting of the arrest of Jesus in the garden now hangs in the National Art Gallery in Ireland, and is one of the Gallery’s great treasures.
It’s almost scary to think that this masterpiece, worth over 25 million euros, was hanging in a dining room for 60 years and nobody knew its value. All that time it had hung there it was no less a treasure, but its real value went unrecognized. It hung there waiting for someone to recognize its true worth, its value as a work of art.
In the second reading Paul makes an amazing statement. He claims that “we are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life.” We don’t tend to think of ourselves as a work of art. Add to that the many forces that diminish and demean us, or such things as a bad day at the office, and we are far less likely to think anything good of ourselves, less still that we are special in God’s eyes. Yet, as Paul reminds us in our second reading, God sees us as works of art. Like the person who spotted the Caravaggio painting, God knows our true worth, our true value, and through the prophet Isaiah says, “You are precious in my sight, and I love you.” We are God’s works of art, precious in his sight.
I’m sure Caravaggio felt very good and proud of his masterpiece. It’s the natural thing to do. It is said of Leonardo da Vinci, that he so valued his Mona Lisa painting that he always carried it around with him and kept touching it up. What does this say of God’s feelings for us? If we are God’s work of art then does not God feel proud for us? And as we travel around is not God carrying us with extreme care, both forming and transforming us so that we become more and more the people he has designed us to be. Remember the creation account in Genesis. After each day of the creation there is a recurring phrase, ‘and God saw that it was good.’ But on the sixth day, after the creation of man and woman he saw that it was very good. Then on the seventh day God rested. I’m sure part of that rest was simply to enjoy and delight in the creation of all, but especially of us human beings.
We have not been good at realising that we are God’s work of art and this happens to be at the heart of the mission of Jesus. His every reaching out to the poorest, most humble and most oppressed of people is stating very clearly that all people are of great value in the sight of God. And then today we have that wonderful sentence from John’s gospel. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This isn’t just one phrase more. There are many words that can be cut out of the Gospel without changing anything important. But not here! This sentence gathers in a nutshell the essential nucleus of the Christian faith. This love of God is the origin and the foundation of our hope. “God loves the world”. God loves it just as it is, unfinished and uncertain, full of conflicts and contradictions, capable of the best and the worst. This world doesn’t run its course alone, lost and uncared-for. God envelops it with love through and through.
Jesus is above all the “gift” that God has given to the world, not just to Christians. Jesus is there for us. We are invited to come close to Jesus for it is only Jesus who will reveal to us our true dignity as human beings. Only Jesus can help us understand that we are God’s great work of art and that God will never forget us. God said in Isaiah 49: “Can a woman forget her baby at the breast, feel no pity for the child she has borne? Even if these were to forget, I shall not forget you.” We are simply priceless in God’s eyes.
The Second Vatican Council states that the Church “is sent by Christ to manifest and communicate God’s love to all human beings”. Nothing is more important. According to the Gospel writer, God gives this great gift that is Jesus to the world, “not to judge the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.” Not to judge the world! It’s all too easy to do so, but this is not God’s approach. On the contrary it’s only by loving, as Jesus did, that others will feel called to conversion. If people feel themselves condemned by God, we are not transmitting to them Jesus’ message, but something else: maybe our own resentment and anger.
We are God’s work of art, made in God’s image. To live up to that image is to love on a daily basis. It is to introduce a little bit of love into this very confused and uncertain world, whenever we get the chance. That’s what Jesus did. We don’t need to wait on anyone. Why not be good men and women in these moments, introducing in our midst love, friendship, compassion, justice, sensitivity, help for those who suffer? These kinds of things build up Jesus’ Church, the Church of love.
Sunday 15 March 2015