Fourth Lent: God’s Works of Art
When I first read through the readings for this week, I was struck by one phrase found at the end of the second reading, from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. The particular translation I used came from the Jerusalem Bible. It read: We are God’s work of art. Other translations, like the one we use at Mass, use the term handiwork of God. Is it handiwork or work of art? The word used is the Greek word, poiema. This same Greek word is used in the Greek translation of the Book of Genesis when it describes God as creating the heavens and earth. So, we are God’s creation. Ephesians goes on to say that we were created in Jesus Christ so that we can do the work that God has prepared for us. We are a unique part of the new creation of the world through Jesus Christ. The authors of the Jerusalem Bible obviously felt that God was far more than the Divine Handyman. He is the Divine Artist. And we are His work.
We are God’s work of art. Like you, I’m sure, I’ve never looked into a mirror and considered myself a work of art. Well, maybe first thing in the morning I’ve thought that I look like abstract art, but nothing that reflects any sort of Divine Beauty, Divine Comedy yes, but Divine Beauty, no. Our beauty really does not come from our looks, thank God. I remember when our wonderful pastor, Fr. John LaTondress, was suffering from cancer, but had made a bit of a recovery. The bishop was going to have a dinner for all the priests of the diocese and Fr. John wanted to go, but he was concerned about the way he looked. He had lost a lot of weight and was pretty much skin and bones. So he called me up. I was pastor of St. Matthew’s at the time. He asked, “Joe, tell me the truth. I really look pretty crummy, don’t I?” Actually he said something else, but I won’t tell you exactly how he put it. Anyway, I responded, “To tell you the truth, John, you didn’t look very good before you got sick.” All those who remember Fr. John remember that he was one of the most beautiful men and priests any of us have ever met. And it had nothing to do with his looks, thank God.
Our beauty comes from the way we reflect the Lord, the Infinite Beautiful One. Our reflection is not the static reflection of a painting or sculpture, but the dynamic action of people who make God’s presence real on the earth.
We are God’s work of art. That reminds me of the most discouraging visit I ever had to one of my favorite art museums. In the beginning of November, 2002, I joined our choir on a pilgrimage to Rome. Part of the trip included a stop in Florence. Florence is the city of the Renaissance, the city of Michelangelo’s David, and the frescos of the Medici Chapel, and great art museums, the greatest of which is the Uffizi. It is in the Uffizi that you find Botticelli’s Annunciation, and the Birth of Venus, and the beautiful sculpture, the Medici Venus, to mention just three of its most famous works. Now, I had been to the Uffizi before, but there were always long lines and hours of waiting to get in, followed by overcrowded rooms, and noisy tourists who seemed more concerned about proving to their friends back home that they had been there than with enjoying the works of art. But, on that trip in November I went to the museum in the afternoon and was shocked to find that there was no line waiting to get in. I walked right in, after paying a King’s ransom for a ticket. The Italians are not shy in charging. Still it certainly seemed worth whatever they charged. There were very few people in the museum. It was all mine to enjoy! Then I found out why the museum was almost empty. It was the latter part of an overcast afternoon in November. And the Uffizi relies mainly on natural lighting. The galleries were gloomy, even dark. Botticelli and Raphael’s paintings looked brown and grey, certainly I could not see their vibrant colors. Even the great sculpture that Napoleon stole and that France sent back to Italy, the Medici Venus, looked rather plain, certainly not worth the fuss. Artwork is not beautiful if you can’t see it.
In the conclusion of today’s Gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus: “Whoever lives in the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.”
There are times that we hide our Christianity. Someone is talking about someone else, and we join in the backstabbing. Someone is being vocal about his or her latest plunge into immorality, and we just go along with the rest listening to the exploits in silent agreement. A person is attacking our faith, and we don’t make any effort to defend what we know is truth. And the artwork that God created, the handiwork of God, remains hidden, in the dark.
But there are those times that we do come into the light and let God’s handiwork be seen in the world. There are times that we give up our days and nights to stay at the bedside of a dying person, perhaps only an acquaintance who would be all alone if we left. And the beauty of God is seen in His Light. There are times that we sacrifice something that we really want to do so that we can spend time with someone who is hurting. You may take this for granted, but when you go to a wake or funeral, you are giving tremendous comfort to the family, even if you are just one of three hundred people there. The family will remember every person present and will thank God for the beauty of His people. There are times that we all take stands which are not popular, which can result in others being upset with us, but we stick with the truth for the sake of the Beauty of His Truth. And His Light overcomes the darkness.
We are God’s work of art. Artists take a deep pride in their work. But their work must be in the light to be seen. We pray today that we may have the courage to allow the light to reveal the Beauty we have be given by our Loving Savior, who is, after all, the Infinite Beauty.