The Artist: Feast of St. Matthew

Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-13; Matthew 9:9-13

Perhaps the most popular way to contemplate a bible story such as the call of St. Matthew is to imagine ourselves actually in the ancient setting as one of the characters. We see Jesus in that time and place and playing a role in the drama, say Matthew, we contemplate our own reaction to the call to follow Him.

But there is another way, and that was the one chosen by the 16th century Italian artist Caravaggio. Commissioned to paint an interpretation of the call of St. Matthew, the young artist chose not to portray the scene in its biblical setting. Rather, he set the scene in his own time, moving it from a customs post to a Roman pub. If you’ve never seen the painting, imagine: A giant canvas, mostly dark; to the left, five men in modern clothing clustered around a table in a dimly lit, sparsely furnished room. They could be gamblers; it’s hard to tell. To the right, our Lord and St. Peter in ancient garb have just entered. The only light emanates from behind Christ and illuminates the men in the room. Christ beckons toward them with a gesture reminiscent of the famous Sistine Chapel image of God creating Adam. It’s difficult to tell exactly who He beckons toward. The two men closest to Him appear either annoyed or indifferent. The man in the middle, who may be Matthew, appears shocked and points perhaps at himself, perhaps at the man next to him as if to say, “Me or him?” Finally, the two men furthest away pay no attention either to the light or to Christ; their eyes are fixed on the money.

The painting, which hangs in a chapel of the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, shocked the people of its time who were used to sacred art that showed Jesus in the places and with the people of biblical times. By bringing Him to the modern day, Caravaggio reminded them that Jesus is with all of us; He is not confined to any particular time. Gospel verses such as Jesus passed by (Matthew 9:9) are reminders that Jesus is always passing by: He is the child wasting away in a 3rd world country, the immigrant family at the border, the Alzheimer’s patient in the nursing home; the person next to us in the pew; the one looking at us in the mirror.

Further, Jesus isn’t calling only Matthew. Where Caravaggio was ambiguous let us be clear; Jesus is calling all of us. No matter who we are or how deeply invested in Him we think we already are, Jesus is always calling us into a deeper, more intimate relationship. We speak of a ‘call’ but in reality it’s a challenge; we must ask ourselves if and how we are like those men in the painting. We may be annoyed, thinking that we’ve done enough; we may be indifferent, we’ve stopped caring. Like the man in the middle, we may be astonished, perhaps hoping that Jesus is asking someone else. Or we may be paying no attention at all, too occupied with what we think is important.

A detail in Caravaggio’s painting should be pointed out. Although Jesus is beckoning toward the table, His feet are facing the exit. Jesus asks us to follow Him but He doesn’t wait. He is on a mission; there are places to go, people to see. The choice is ours. We can get up and follow as Matthew did or we can put it off, wait for a better time. Keep in mind though, that Jesus Himself chose that moment. He has a purpose, a plan, and it includes us. He may demand much but his generosity is never outdone.

art-2755500_1920St. Paul reminds us of this when he says that grace is given to each according to the measure of Christ’s gift (Ephesians 4:11). His measure to Matthew was enough to transform him from a mere money-counter into an artist; indeed the artist who gave us the first portrait of Jesus in our New Testament. His medium wasn’t oil on canvas but words on paper, his subject not simply the man named Jesus but the Son of God and Son of Mary, the prophesied Emmanuel, “God is with us.” His palette held the many colors of Christ: teacher, healer, wonder-worker, Shepherd, Savior. He boldly painted all these images against a dark background for Jesus had come not into a roomful of Roman gamblers but into a land whose people were overshadowed by the darkness of sin and death. Where Caravaggio showed the light coming from behind Christ, Matthew knew that for all times and places Christ is the light – not the light who shines but the light who has arisen (Matthew 4:16). The long night of waiting, hoping, and wondering was over; the bright promise of salvation had dawned in Jesus, the Morning Star who never sets. This is why the great artist put the final brushstroke to his masterpiece in the words of our risen, ascending Master: And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).

St. Matthew, pray for us.

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