Called to the Light

As Jesus passed by,
he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post.
He said to him, “Follow me.”
And he got up and followed him.
While he was at table in his house,
many tax collectors and sinners came
and sat with Jesus and his disciples.
The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples,
“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
He heard this and said,
“Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.
Go and learn the meaning of the words,
I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”
—Matthew 9:9–13

There is a well-known painting of the calling of St. Matthew in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, painted by the great Caravaggio. I often used to stop through to see it while I was studying abroad, since it was just around the corner from my school. It sits in a shadowy corner of the church, but when a tourist drops coins into a slot, a light shines upon it for a few minutes. Once it is illuminated, you can see that the painting itself is a stark contrast of light and shadow—a masterpiece of chiaroscuro.

The_Calling_of_Saint_Matthew-Caravaggo_(1599-1600)

Matthew is sitting at a table with his fellow tax collectors, counting money. Jesus, standing at the opposite end of the table, is pointing at Matthew, while Matthew and his companions seem to be caught in utter surprise. One man also points at Matthew in his bewilderment, as if to say, “Who, him? Really?” They are sitting in the shadows, but their faces are illuminated with a clear, brilliant light, coming from Jesus’s direction. And Matthew hangs his head as if caught red-handed, exposed in his sin.

Caravaggio sought to capture this singular, crucial moment, the turning point of Matthew’s whole life. We see Jesus’s mercy, bringing Matthew out of the darkness and into the light, but we also see the stark vulnerability and fear which that light reveals. In this pivotal moment, Matthew had a choice. He could have recoiled and crawled back into the shadows, but he didn’t. Terrifying as it was to leave everything behind and follow this mysterious stranger, he knew that he was not created to lurk in the shadows of a life of corruption and greed. The light of Jesus’s presence made him aware of a yearning within himself for goodness and truth, a long-neglected thirst for transcendent love. He knew that the life he was leading could not quench that thirst but would only deepen it. And so he stood, left everything behind, followed Jesus into the light, and never looked back.

St. Matthew, when we are tempted to seek fulfillment in things other than God and to veil our actions in secrecy, shine a light into our hearts, that we may see clearly the truth of our condition and understand who we were created to be. Give us the courage to loosen our grip on everything that distracts us from our ultimate purpose as children of God, and give us trust in His great mercy, that we may confidently believe that He seeks to heal and restore us, not to condemn us. And, like you, may we follow Him without looking back, telling the story of His merciful love for us all our days.


Image: Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew / PD-US

On This Friday We Call Good: Eucatastrophe and the Eucharist

From noon onward, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.

-Matthew 27:45

It is finished.

We listened as Christ’s final words were proclaimed from the altar. We adored His cross and kissed His wounds, following in the footsteps of Mary and the beloved disciple. And then, we received the Word made flesh in the Eucharist, “the one great thing to love on earth,” one last time.

Now, the sanctuary light is extinguished, the altar is bare, and the dim church is silent. The tabernacle is open, and empty. If “a stable once had some[one] inside it that was bigger than our whole world,” the absence of that dear friend leaves a hole just as large, and it seems like “all other lights [have gone] out,” that our “one companion is darkness” (Ps. 88:19). As another poet says, “O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.”

Yet, even in this hour of remembering Christ’s passion, we “do not believe that any darkness will endure,” though the “shadow lies on [us] still.” Jesus tells us himself at the Last Supper that “you will weep and mourn… you will grieve, but your grief will become joy” (Jn. 16:20). This darkness is not the end of the story. Though we may be in anguish now, and remember how his apostles were then, we will see Him again, receive Him again, and our hearts will rejoice just as their hearts did. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5).

In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien writes about this “sudden joyous turn” when all hope seems lost, which he calls a eucatastrophe. The opposite of a tragedy’s catastrophe, it is a “sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence… of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies… universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

Evangelium—the Gospel, the good news. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn. 1:1, 14). As Pope Benedict XVI writes, “The Gospel is not just informative speech, but performative speech—not just the imparting of information, but action, efficacious power that enters into the world to save and transform… God’s word, which is at once word and deed, appears… For here it is the real Lord of the world—the Living God—who goes into action.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).

As Tolkien continues, he says, “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.” So too does Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, Jesus joyfully arrives in Jerusalem. On Holy Thursday, He gives us the gift of Himself in the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith, which “[feeds] the will and [gives us] the strength to endure.” On Good Friday, He gives us His mother, Our Lady, to be our mother and companion in darkness, before giving up His very life for us on the cross out of love.

Soon, His love will be told not only on the cross, but also in the empty tomb. His faithfulness will be known among the dead, as He breaks the very bonds of sin and death. And His wonders will be known, even in the dark. We need only to take courage and wait a little while longer—for the winter will pass, the Son will be unveiled in the breaking of the bread, and the light will leap forth as we sing with Easter joy.

Referenced
Eliot, Four Quartets
Lewis, The Last Battle
Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, On Fairy-Stories, Letters
Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth Vol. 1

Cluttered Hearts

“O house of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the LORD!” -Isaiah 2:5

Advent is upon us, and it seems like each year my heart cries out with more and more longing for the coming of our Savior.

Jesus, we need You.

We need You in our broken and hurting world full of darkness, sin, and deep, deep pain.

We need You to be the center of our families, our marriages, our friendships. We need You to heal our relationships with others.

We need You in our workplaces.

We need You in our bleeding Church; oh how we need You to make all things new and right. We need You to bind up our wounds, to bring mighty justice, to shine Your piercing light into the darkness of the appalling sin, shame, hiding, and cover-up, to direct our next steps and to guide us forward.

We need You in the messy parts of our hearts, the parts we are too ashamed to tell other people about, the parts You see and love us anyway.

We need You to uproot and cast out shame, fear, and distrust of Your goodness from our lives.

We need You in every inch of the world, in every part of our beings, in the deepest depths of our souls. Every minute, every hour, every second—we need You.

Dear brothers and sisters, Advent is a season full of hopeful expectation of God’s saving power. It’s a season of light shining forth in the darkness. As we light each new candle of the Advent wreath, may we allow that much more of the light of Christ to pierce our hearts and renew us.

The other day in prayer, I imagined Jesus knocking on the door of the home of my heart, like a guest that comes forty-five minutes before the party when you’re still cleaning and haven’t showered. I imagined myself panic-stricken, trying to shove certain things behind the couch. And there He stood before me, smiling, seeing right through my couch cushions to all the mess and sin that I tried to hide. Yet He responded with nothing but tenderness. His kindness leads to our conversion.

We need to let Jesus in before we feel ready. Sometimes we need Him to help point out where we need to grow, and sometimes we need the affirmation of knowing that He loves us just the same no matter what mess we have in our hearts. He takes us as we are. When we let our Savior in, prepared or not, He speaks to our cluttered and weary hearts, “You are good. You are seen. You are known. I love you fully, as you are.”