As someone who tends not to eat until the work of the day is complete my television viewing often takes place after what was once referred to as the Watershed, hence I find relaxing enjoyment in many of the detective dramas that are a feature of post 9 p.m. schedules. Increasingly I have begun to wonder if I am made of much tougher and far less shockable stuff than other viewers as I pass the comment “Well, what do you expect !” in reply to the continuity announcers’ statement that the programme about to be aired contains violence and scenes that some viewers may find distressing. Take the suspense, grit and violent scenes out of such indulgent viewing and there would be a lot of unemployed and bland TV detectives. Vera Stanhope could spend a bit more time on housework, and Ted Hastings pursuing his life-mission of discovering the ever-elusive “H”. Far more worrying is when similar announcements are made prior to the opening bars of familiar soap opera themes. These are masked, when one makes an objection, by justifying responses that the scripts of what were once beloved national TV treasures reflect topical issues and are in no way related to the fact that a sensational storyline brings higher audience ratings than a rival. Doubting the validity of the argument I would be happy for Coronation Street to go back to two evenings a week, Emmerdale become a farm once more offering, as it once did, seasonal viewing and for some bland, good-living, naturally comical family to move into an Albert Square property. A form of normality does exist for the majority of us, and I very often say that I could not write the script for some of the scenarios that I encounter, not to mention the rich seem of priceless characters that I come across, unpaid for being wonderfully just themselves, quirky, funny and natural. Alas, no announcement is made before something featured on screens, great or small, introduces a character or two, ready, willing and overly able to take the name of the Lord in vain. Of course to object about such matters would be deemed over sensitive. The fact that we need to be informed that a murder will take place in the picturesque but deadly villages of the fictional county of Midsomer is a totally different matter.
This weekend our Low Sunday Liturgy presents us with a story-line not intended for the faint-hearted or squeamish. The Risen Christ appears to the marooned isolating Apostles in the Upper Room. All, except one. Thomas, the twin. On his return from where we are not told, perhaps a foray for food, if so he must have been weighed down with enough to satisfy at least ten other adults under the same roof, he makes the staggering statement “Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put my finger into the holes they made, and unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe.” (John 20:25) This post-resurrectional appearance of Christ, with all the gruesome demands of Thomas, if he is to believe the words of the other Apostles, is not something we hear just once every three years in our cycle of Sunday readings, but it is there for us to encounter and benefit from on the Second Sunday of Easter in Years A, B and C. In other words there is simply no escaping or avoiding the unashamed gore and earthiness of the graphic description offered by St. John the Evangelist.
A number of years ago, having preached on this Gospel extract, I received in the post what I felt is a tremendously powerful image of the scene in that secured room eight days after the initial appearance of the Risen Christ. It portrays the response of the Resurrected One inviting Thomas to “Put your finger here; look here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side.” (John 20:27). The image sent, entitled “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas,” was by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610), and is a very graphic and literal interpretation of the biblical account, with Christ holding the wrist of Thomas, who, with finger outstretched, is touching the very wounds of the One he will subsequently acknowledge, climatically for the author of the Gospel, as “My Lord and my God !” (John 20:28) Peering over the shoulder of the stooping Thomas are two of his companions, who already having seen the Risen Lord, are given further proof that what they believed they had seen they really had. Emphasising the reality of the resurrection from the dead of Jesus’s physical human body the depiction is noticeably devoid of attributes such as a halo above His head. In this instance it is the shared human wrapping with the Apostles that is stressed, flesh and blood, not that which differentiates them, His divinity.
The dawn of Caravaggio’s prolific artistic career began in the factory-like environment of the artist Giuseppe Cesari’s studio. Here there was an almost conveyor belt production of much sought after depictions of flowers and fruit made fashionable by Pope Clement VIII’s patronage of Cesari (1568 – 1640). Caravaggio’s own brief life, less than forty years, was marked by a personal reputation that included a quickness of temper, being easily provoked and in the face of defeat a tendency to allow violence to determine the outcome of arguments. He was sentenced to death for a murder which took place during a violent brawl in Naples, from where he fled and for which he was eventually granted a Papal pardon. The dramatic and ever present personal energy with which he lived his life spilled over into his career on canvass. He was a deft and skilled crafter frequently dismissing the preparatory techniques of others such as the use of cartoons or paper drafts, preferring instead to work directly on to a canvas, using live models which, together with an insightful observation of the human state and anatomy, allowed his works to convey a wealth and richness of physical and emotional expression producing paintings which communicate profoundly with those looking at them.
In the evolving world of art Caravaggio’s influence was huge, culturing with others a new Baroque-style of art, his own works eagerly embracing the dramatic use and effect of both light and darkness, observed through life-experience, on his subject matter. His skill and inner eye allowed him to become a master craftsman able to give status and relevance to those captured in darkening shadow-effect without detracting any meaningfulness from central characters often caught in the spotlight of a radiant shaft of light. Whilst numerous paintings of his convey scenes of great sensitivity such as the “Supper at Emmaus,” the “Death of the Virgin” and the “Conversion on the way to Damascus,” Caravaggio certainly does not shy away from the gruesome and horrific, including the “Crucifixion of St. Peter,” “David with the head of Goliath” and “Judith beheading Holofernes,” to which may be added the “Incredulity of Saint Thomas.” Strange to say, I have yet to see any warning given about the subject matter of such depictions, nor, having viewed them, am I aware of suffering any emotional or psychological damage.
Having been privileged to celebrate our Holy Week Liturgies last week it was reassuringly good to see our churches as full as they could be on Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, though, as usual, there was space for a few more on Holy Thursday. I put this down to the fact that the Gospel of Holy Thursday evening (John 13:1-15) is not a story that we are totally comfortable with. It comes with its own health warning. The evangelists Mark (14:22ff), Matthew (26:26ff) and Luke (22:14ff) all recount the Last Supper at which the Eucharist is instituted by Jesus who, taking the simple gifts of bread and wine, through the power of the Holy Spirit become His very body and blood. John however, using the backdrop of the Passover meal, shifts the emphasis from receiving such a great and mystical gift to revealing, offering and giving gifts to others, taking the very tangible form of service to our sisters and brothers. In John’s telling of the events of that final evening shared by Jesus and the Apostles, even those closest to Him are shocked and stunned by His action of washing their feet and giving them “an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.” (John 13:15) This was not what they were expecting, and as we gather, year on year to celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, it still does not sit any too comfortably with us. The gift of the Eucharist comes with strings attached. That of serving our fellow human beings. It is a big ask, to put others before self and one that can involve the risks of humiliation and rejection as what is offered is not graciously welcomed or accepted and where graspingly snatched, the gesture may be misunderstood.
St. John purposefully removed Thomas from the initial encounter of Jesus with the Apostles, allowing him to include the only beatitude in his Gospel “Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (John 20:29) Elsewhere we hear the more familiar attitudes of being associated with the living out in our own lives of the blueprint left by Jesus including mercy, peace and justice. John makes the presumption that the followers of Christ are already living the more familiar Beatitudes of St. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. As such John fundamentally shifts the goalposts of expectation of Christian living to include the aspiration, coupled with a subtle new hope, that how the followers of Christ live will influence others to a point where they question the motivation of the Christian and by so doing express a hunger and thirst for a personal knowledge of the Risen Christ. This is where the uncomfortableness of being a follower of Christ kicks in. Not only are we being asked to say who we are, but also to live what we profess. Our natural apprehension and fear of failure can hold us back. However not only was the Upper Room the place where Thomas was to offer his own version of the Creed, but it was also where the Holy Spirit was poured out on the fearful Apostles. On their reception of this gift, they flung the doors wide and began to proclaim – in a language that all their hearers could understand – the message of the resurrection. Words will not have been enough for this to be effective. Attitude and deed were the co-workers of words spoken, allowing the infant Church to live a life of both integrity and authenticity. As “children of the light,” by virtue of Easter and our own baptism, we are called to continue this work today. If we do we may well be recognisable descendants of those spoken of in this weekend’s first reading: a group of believers “united, heart and soul.” (Acts 4:32)
In signing off for this week I continue to wish you all the blessings and joys of the Season, may they be yours and the gift we offer to those who share our life-journey. With unity in both prayer and affection.
As ever, Fr. Nicholas