God’s work of art
cyprian, 4th Sunday of Lent
I would hazard to say that most of us here at some point have gone through some kind of conversion experience in our lives, maybe several times––an experience of a power-greater-than-ourselves, a turning point in our lives, a moment when we decided to give our lives over to God, or a moment when we dedicated our lives to the spiritual path, a moment when we come to realize that nothing else is going to satisfy us but “this.” And as Christians that conversion entails coming to understand that experience through Jesus, with Jesus, in Jesus, falling in love with the way of Jesus, a conviction when hearing or reading the Gospel, knowing in our heart of hearts that this way of Jesus, the way of servant-hood and kenosis has the ring of truth to it like no other way. And so, “I have decided to follow Jesus!”
For the first Christians, the moment of conversion and the experience of baptism were inseparable. But I don’t think that’s true for most of us––especially us poor “cradle Catholics.” (It’s so un-hip to be a “cradle Catholic” these days!) We don’t usually think of Baptism as that moment of conversion. Most of us were baptized “as little red-faced humanoids” with no real conscious decision involved in it, no real movement of our hearts. So for us a conversion experience is often more of a deepening or, even better, a realization and an actualization of that unconscious baptismal commitment. Hence the season of Lent each year comes as an opportunity to realize and actualize that baptismal commitment for those of us who were baptized but never really converted.
Even less do we tend to think of baptism as an “enlightenment experience.” Actually this is not a word––“enlightenment”––that I grew up with as a Christian. Whenever I heard it, it was usually associated with Asian mysticism. But, again, in early Christianity baptism was referred to as a photismos, which is usually translated as “illumination” or “enlightenment,” and it was experienced as a whole new way of seeing the world. For someone coming to believe in Christ, that enlightenment may most obviously be recognizing and acknowledging that Jesus is Lord, like the story of the man born blind that we heard today (Jn 9:1-41)––but that’s only the beginning! The experience of Jesus’ Paschal mystery is an enlightenment experience that changes everything––how we see ourselves, how we see others, and even how we see the world around us.
That’s why the story of David is so interesting here today. I always try to overlook the fact that David was a ruddy youth, handsome to behold, with beautiful eyes and making a splendid appearance. I try to forget about Michelangelo’s colossal strapping young David for a moment, because that confirms our way of thinking: “Of course God picked him, he was the best looking.” But that is not how God sees! ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature,’ we hear. ‘The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’[i] Looks don’t matter. Social and ecclesial position doesn’t matter. I always think it would be an even more effective story if David were a scrawny bucktoothed little boy, or an overweight pimply-faced teenaged girl. As we’ll hear from the Song of the Suffering Servant of Good Friday, referring to Jesus: There was in him no stately bearing to make us look to him...[ii]
In the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, one of the texts used as an acclamation is a paraphrase from Ephesians 2:10. Even though the NRSV translates that verse, “We are what he has made us” and the NAB says, “You are God’s handiwork”, the RCIA instead renders it, “You are God’s work of art” for the catechumens. God sees David as his handiwork, his work of art even if and when others can’t. But can David see himself as God’s work of art? Even if he is naturally good-looking, intelligent, talented, does he know himself to be precious a treasured by God? And so with us: Do we know ourselves as God’s handiwork, God’s work of art? Could this not be part of the enlightenment experience too?
I saw this wild movie some years ago called “What the (Bleep!) Do We Know.” It was mostly a documentary, but it also had a fictional woman character who served as the protagonist. At one point in the movie the woman suddenly realizes how much she has been affected by all the negative messages that she has heard throughout her life, and how much she has internalized all these messages, how much she keeps repeating these messages to herself, beating herself up, and then projecting that negativity onto the world and everyone around her. And then there is this great moment when she suddenly sees herself in the mirror, you might say, as God sees her. From there it gets a little hokey––she starts writing messages to herself on her own body with lipstick and in the steamy mirror––but I found it very moving. Maybe this is a kind of enlightenment experience too, when we suddenly understand who we really are, our beauty and our dignity, who we’re meant to be––the hope to which we have been called in Christ, as Paul says.
This is actually the subject of so many of the mystagogical texts of the patristic era that we hear after Easter, the texts that unfold the baptismal experience to the catechumens, telling them how because of Christ they now have a share in divinity, telling them that they are precious and free, telling them that they will become divine by participation. Or, as Jesus and St. Paul both say, telling them you are the light of the world, you are light in the Lord. This can be nothing less than an enlightenment experience too, to look in the mirror and see who we are, to understand that we are destined to share in the divinity of Christ.
This is the message of the Christian Scriptures and ought to be the lead message of the church, not so much ‘a sinner was I conceived’ (and certainly not that you are “intrinsically morally disordered”), but that “You are created in the image of God and are pre-destined to participate in the divine nature!” Will we ever see ourselves as we really are?
Ancillary to that, for better of for worse, who we think we are spills out on how we see others, how we treat everyone around us. This to me is where that whole genius of ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ comes from. Maybe we can’t begin to really love another until we have healthy self-love, and self regard. Perhaps when we finally understand who we are, who we are destined to be, is when the walls of separation between us will start to crumble, too, the “us-against-them” that is at the root of all wars, public and private. I think yet again of the experience that Thomas Merton had at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district in Louisville that he writes about in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, when he was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that he loved all those people, “that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness,” he said. “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun… If only we could see each other as we really are all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…” Is it any wonder that this is referred to as his “enlightenment experience”? It’s not just about believing in Jesus; and it’s not just about me and my salvation: it’s about the Body of Christ.
And the next step is important too: do we look out at creation, the world around us and see it as fallen or an illusion or a hindrance to our own sanctification or simply a resource for my use and pleasure? Or do we look at it as God looked at it on the days of creation, saying, “That’s good! That’s good! That’s even better!” This too must be something of an enlightenment experience, like Gerard Manley Hopkins must have had that allowed him to say that the world was “charged with the grandeur of God,” and “will flame out, like shining from shook foil…” Was this Jacob’s enlightenment experience, the moment he realizes that ‘Surely God was in this place and I did not know it’? Will we ever see the world as it really is?
So today’s lesson for us is not just about physical blindness: it’s about the eyes of our heart being opened. All of Lent is about our preparation to dive once again into the marvelous depths of the Paschal mystery––the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, in hope that we may be enlightened, that our eyes will finally be opened, re-opened, or opened wider, or opened for the first time, to see not only who Jesus is, but to see with God’s eyes who we are and who others are, and to see the world as it really is.
[i] 1 Sam 16:1, 6-7, 10-13a.
[ii] Is 53:2-3.