Suffering has long been considered the prime argument against the existence of God. If a good and loving deity is “out there,” so goes the logic, why does he allow adversity, hardship—and death—to occur? I can’t claim to know the answer, but we can point in the general direction. The material world, because it is material, cannot last forever; by its nature, it comes into and goes out of existence. Suffering and death are the way human beings experience that limitation. Goodness knows, this past year gives ample evidence of that truth. But as the saints testify, God allows evil to bring a greater good out of it. Do any of us really want our earthly existence, however wonderful it may be, to go on and on, more of the same, for eternity? Speaking for myself, I don’t. Rather, those moments of joy, the small victories over human anguish, and the experience of love—both human and divine—whet our appetite for the undiluted happiness of Heaven, where God will be all in all. Perhaps the most basic environment that conveys this experience to (most) human beings is the family. As the 2015 Synod of Bishops at the Vatican declares, the natural institution of the family exists in a creative tension with the Kingdom of God. It is a glimpse (however limited) of the blessedness of heaven, while the relations among its members are ordered and perfected by prayerfully anticipating the “beatific vision.”
Our artwork this week is “The Holy Family and St. Mary Magdalene” by the Renaissance painter Domenikos Theotokopoulos, otherwise known as El Greco. His work is immediately recognizable, and while it combines countless influences, it is difficult to categorize. Sometimes called “mannerist,” his distinctive style is one that does not even attempt to be realistic in its portrayal of the subject. The elongated bodies, the exaggerated features, the light source, and the environment that appears anything but ordinary, all seem to rebel against the classical idea of art as the “imitation of nature.” Consider the fact that the artist was the contemporary of two of the saints we’ve recently considered, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, both masters of Catholic mysticism. Recall that the mystic does not look at the world as it appears, but rather as it is “charged,” if you will, by the grace of God. Likewise, every aspect of El Greco’s work—dimension, color, subject matter, technique, symbol—plunges the viewer into the realm of the divine. The artist was heavily influenced by the iconography of the Orthodox Church. (He was born on the island of Crete, and worked as an iconographer in his youth.) Just as an icon (“image”) is intended to be a “window into heaven,” El Greco’s paintings depict a world that has more in common with the divine than the mundane realm we inhabit. His use of deep, vibrant colors, in contrast with more neutral, drab tones, distinguishes heaven from the workaday world in his paintings that depict both. According to the Cleveland Museum where the painting resides, the bowl that a youthful St. Joseph holds, from which the Blessed Mother feeds her child, contains symbolic fruits: apples (the fall of Adam and Eve), cherries (Christ’s blood), peaches (salvation), and pears (virtue). According to art historian Dawson Carr, light seems to emanate from the subjects in this painting, rather than shine upon them as in a realistic painting. The appearance of a downcast, scarlet-hued, adult Mary Magdalene (a contemporary of Jesus, not of his mother) emphasizes humanity’s fallen nature, from which our Savior came to rescue us. The fingers of the Virgin’s right hand are separated between two (the divine and human natures of Christ) and three (the persons of the Trinity). Perhaps most poignantly, the far-away look of the Blessed Mother suggests that she “sees” more than the obvious: the inevitable suffering of her son, which she would one day share, and the final victory of God’s grace in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Catholic sensibility, I believe, resists the temptation to take things at face value. It connects clues, appreciates layers of meaning, and most of all, freely accepts the gifts of God on his terms, not our own. In the Scriptures, the Lord says to the prophet Samuel: “Man sees the appearance, but God looks into the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). We do well to behold our world through the eyes of Christ, to envision and shape what it is called to be in the New Year.