On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican is one of the most famous paintings in all of Christian art: Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam.” It has been reproduced thousands of times on posters, calendars, t-shirts and even coffee mugs!
The scene is that of Adam being brought into life. God is stretching down to him from heaven and Adam’s hand is reaching up; their fingers seem to meet as God infuses him with the gift of life. But if you look closely at that image you will notice that the two are really not touching at all. There remains a slight gap—just a few inches—between them.
And even though it is only a few inches, it might as well be an infinite distance, because there is nothing Adam can do to reach God. There is nothing any of us can do—of ourselves—to reach the heights of heaven. As St. Paul says so clearly in today’s second reading, God is He:
Who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, and whom no human being has seen or can see.
—1 Timothy 6:16
There is nothing we could ever do to take hold of heaven and bridge that gap between us and God; but there is something He can do—and has done—to reach us. In Jesus Christ, God has become man and has brought us all closer together, and together, closer to God. Every one of us shares an intimate bond with each other, because we have all been created by God, and an intimate bond with God himself, who sent Christ to redeem us.
In the parable Jesus relates to us in the gospel this weekend, both those bonds are broken.
The rich man, who lived comfortably and had everything he could ever want in life, now finds himself in a place of torment, separated from his fellow man and separated from God. He cries out to Abraham, hoping that maybe Lazarus can come and bring him relief. Sadly, Abraham replies that he cannot:
Between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.
It’s a great chasm, an infinite distance, and there is nothing now that can close the gap. It’s too late. All his life the rich man could have reached out and touched Lazarus, he could have spoken to him and helped him. Instead he chose to ignore this poor man, lying at his door. He chose complacency over compassion, selfishness instead of selfless love for others, and refused to recognize the bond he shared with another human person.
This complacency is something that can affect all the areas of our lives: our relationships, our friendships, and even our faith life. We can become all too comfortable with ourselves and forget the needs of those around us.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that the rich man in the parable knew Lazarus! Remember, he calls out to Abraham and asks for Lazarus by name. He knew his name!
If we look close enough, each of us can find that there are people in our lives, people we know by name, that are needy in some way or another. It might be a physical need, or an emotional or spiritual one. There are so many needs in this world we live in. How is God calling us to respond to the ones that are right in front of us on a daily basis?
For four years I studied in the City of Rome as I was preparing for the priesthood. Each day, on the walk to school, I would encounter many homeless persons. Some of them were beautiful people, and very easy to connect with. Others were much more challenging and quite difficult, indeed, to love.
One of them used to sit on the pavement about 100 yards from the university, and he was completely unpredictable. Sometimes he would curse as we walked by, or even spit at us. Other times he was soft-spoken and asked us kindly for a helping hand. It was hard to know whether we should reach out and help, or walk quickly by and avoid him.
One day, as I was speaking with another seminarian in his dorm room, I noticed a small painting on his wall that looked familiar. I said, “That’s the university. In fact, I even recognize the angle that picture was painted from. That’s about the place where that homeless guy sits. You know, the mean one.”
The other seminarian said to me, “You mean Joseph?”
I was surprised. “How did you know his name?”
Then he said to me, “Joseph is the one who painted that picture.”
So many times I had walked by that man and seen only someone who was ugly. Yet there was great beauty there, deep within. So often we look at ourselves, or at others, and we see people who are ugly. God challenges us to look deeper, and to recognize the beauty that He put there. He challenges us to look for the image of God at the center of every human person, and to love that image. He calls us, in very concrete ways this week, to love those around us and to close the gap that so often exists between us.
St. Augustine, who wrote extensively about love and the Christian life, was once challenged: “But what does love look like?” It’s as if they were saying, “Enough philosophy and theology. Just tell us what this love should look like.” He answered directly:
Love has feet, to go to the poor and needy.
It has eyes, to see misery and want.
It has ears, to hear the sighs and sorrows of others.
In a moment, God will reach down from heaven and touch us with the gift of the Eucharist. The same God who reached down and touched Adam, giving Him the gift of life, will reach down here and touch our hearts with His Body and His Blood.
May he also touch our feet, that they may go to the poor and needy, our eyes so we can see the suffering all around us, and our ears, that they may be opened to hear the sighs and sorrows of others.
And when the world we live in begins to search for the image of love, and wants to know what it looks like; when they look for that image of God and long for even a glimpse of it, may they find that image in each and every one of us.