Sunday, September 27, 2009

Not merely us, but Christ in us

Michelangelo's Pieta, St. Peter's Basilica in Rome

(26th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on 27 September, 2009 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See Numbers 11:25-29 and Mark 9:38-48)

One of the most beautiful and certainly well known works of Christian art is Michelangelo’s Pieta located in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. What makes that masterpiece of sculpture remarkable is that Michelangelo completed it while he was still a young man in his twenties.

He was present on the day they unveiled that exquisite statue and certainly the people there would have heard of Michelangelo, but it is unlikely that they would have recognized his face. Unbeknownst to so many of them he was mingling among the crowd when he heard two men speaking about the Pieta. One of them was asking who made it. Upon hearing the reply, that Michelangelo was believed to be the artist, the person expressed his doubt that the young Florentine could have accomplished something that grand. Perhaps, he suggested instead, it was done by Solari (Cristofero Solari was a contemporary of Michelangelo and an extremely gifted artist in his own right).

Upon hearing this conversation Michelangelo was so offended, his pride so wounded, that he later took a chisel and hammer and stenciled into the sash which Our Lady was wearing the following words: Michelangelo Bunarroti the Florentine Made This.

Obviously you cannot take back something like that. It is said that he was so ashamed at having acted that way, out of pride and self importance, that he vowed never to sign another work of art again.

Can you imagine how different that is from the culture we live in today? People do not accomplish anything at all without making sure their name is all over it (take this blog, for instance!). If you go to the bookstore, look at the bestsellers and the most gifted writers of our time. What you will discover are hundreds of books with the title on the front cover, maybe in small letters at the top or bottom of that book; then you will find the author’s name, usually in the middle, in enormous block letters and bold print!

Please do not misunderstand me; we should be recognized for the work we do. There is nothing wrong with putting our name on the works we accomplish or being recognized as the ones who do something beautiful. It is just that for the Christian artist that cannot be the final goal. The main purpose of the Christian artist is to put the other in touch with the sacred.

One of the things I find striking about the writing of icons—which Fr. Paul Czerwonka teaches so well here at the American College—is how the icon is never signed by the artist upon its completion. The reason, again, is because the role of the iconographer is not to put another person in touch with the artist himself or herself, but with the living God. Icons are a window to heaven and the person who prays before one of these sacred images should be able to communicate with God; they should be placed in a deeper communion with the saints; they should be able to draw closer to Our Lady and to her Son, Jesus Christ.

But that is not only the goal of Christian art and iconography. It is, in fact, the goal of the Christian life. We are all called to surrender our lives in such a way that we can be an avenue through which other people can “travel” in order to draw closer to God; an avenue through which God can move and operate in such a way that He can draw closer to the people around us. His dream for each of us is that we fully cooperate in that endeavor. We have to be willing to see more than just our own individual lives but to truly be open to the way God is working and active everywhere in the world around us. The focus has to move away from us and back to God. St. Paul says it best:

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.
—Galatians 2:20

In other words, it is no longer about Paul and his gifts and abilities, his selfish individual projects, however noble they may be. It is about Jesus Christ and the way He is living in St. Paul. We surrender ourselves in such a way that God is living and moving in us and through us. Paradoxically, this does not inhibit our freedom in the least. We become more free and more ourselves as we live in the very way God created us…but it doesn’t come easy!

That is the struggle we find in the First Reading and in the Gospel this weekend. In that compelling story from the Book of Numbers we hear of God’s plan to take “some of the spirit that was on Moses,” and give it to the seventy elders of Israel. Obviously the burden of leadership was far too much for any one man to accomplish. God is bestowing a blessing upon Moses by granting him other persons will help him carry the load.

Yet two of the elders were not present with Moses when this spirit was given; apparently they were out to lunch that day. Nonetheless they received it anyway. Suddenly it is Joshua, who has attended Moses all his life, who becomes offended:

“Moses, my Lord, stop them.”
—Numbers 11:28

Moses, no doubt with great love, assures Joshua that there is no offense here. “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets,” he says. “Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!” Moses knows that the blessings of God and the graces God pours out on His people cannot possibly take away from the good things He is already doing in us. For another person to be blessed by God in no way diminishes me. Moses understood that clearly. Do we?

We find that same struggle in the Gospel this weekend. Christ has chosen twelve Apostles to follow Him and to do a particular work in the Church. They will be the foundation on which He will build His Church. He has already sent them out to do miraculous things and they have shared in the very power and authority which He has exercised in their midst.

Suddenly they discover that another person, not from their own group, is also accomplishing great things in the name of Jesus. St. John, again with the same misplaced love which we saw in Joshua, turns to Christ and says:

“Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”
—Mark 9:38

Christ has to correct him: “Do not prevent him.” This was a work accomplished in the name of Jesus; albeit not in the manner St. John had expected and not within the parameters that he was accustomed to. Jesus draws him away from his own individual focus and tries to show him the broader scope of what God is doing: “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40).

This is such an important lesson for the Church, not just in St. John’s time but perhaps even more so in our own. Competition, rivalry, jealousy; these are the very things that diminish, frustrate and suppress the work of God in the Church. It is something that happens in seminaries, in Catholic universities, in parishes and in dioceses. Even the domestic Church, the family, is affected by the jealousies, rivalries and competitive spirit that are not from Christ.

We become so wrapped up in our own little world, our own projects, that we fail to recognize or even begin to inhibit the way God is working in the people around us. How very much we need to learn the lesson which Joshua and St. John were taught in our readings this weekend!

St. Paul, again, tells us distinctly that we have nothing to lose and everything to gain when another member of the Body of Christ is blessed by God. He says that if any one of the members of the body are honored, then all of the members of the body rejoice with it (see 1 Corinthians 12:26).

I would suggest this week that we choose three people in our lives, any three people who are fellow members of the body of Christ, and ask God for the wisdom to recognize the beautiful work He is accomplishing in them; ask God to show you the masterpiece, the icon He is writing in their daily lives. Seek to be a part of that great work by your encouragement, your charity, and especially by your prayers for those three people. This week let us ask to see less of our own individual lives and more of what God is accomplishing on a much larger scale, and may we all be able to say, with St. Paul:

It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
—Galatians 2:20