Word for Today from Father Sam Randall, Saturday 16th January

Written by on 15/01/2021

Word for Today Saturday 16th January

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew* sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.
—Matthew 9:9

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s painting The Calling of St. Matthew was painted in 1600 and hangs in the Contarelli chapel of Rome’s Church of San Luigi de Francesi. This is one of three paintings by Caravaggio in the church.  The others are the Inspiration of Saint Matthew, and the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew.  We have put a copy of the painting on our website.

In The Calling of St. Matthew the shoeless Peter and Jesus are both dressed in clothes from First century Palestine and this is in contrast to the men who gathered around the customs post who are wearing clothes typical of the sixteenth century.  This makes it seem that the Apostle and the Lord have broken into their world.  The painting of Matthew and his associates in clothing of that period reminds us that the Gospel message – and the call to discipleship – is forever contemporary and immediate.

The Calling of St. Matthew is a brilliant work mingling light and darkness and it captures one of the most pivotal moments in Matthew’s Gospel – the story of a sinner called by Christ.

The light penetrating the painting travels from right to left and, appropriately, it emerges from just above Jesus and yet seems to emanate from him. Light beams entering the dark scene, illuminating Matthew’s stunned face. There is debate about which of the figures in the painting is Matthew but to me it is clear and it’s not just the response by Matthew.  The light in the painting and the direction of Christ’s hand and eyes shows us who he has come to summon.

We can believe that Christ was always at the centre of every life, but He is the hidden the Christ and not all recognise or acknowledge His presence.  Just think of the story in John 5 of the man in Jerusalem at the pool of Bethesda who is healed.  The text says that there was a multitude there of sick people, but the Lord only heals the paralytic man and even he seems uncertain of Jesus’ true identity.

It is the division in Caravaggio’s painting between light and dark that shows us the nature of conversion. The light passes through Christ’s halo, clips the edge of the visible window, continues between Christ’s hand and the window’s central vertical support, and rests on Matthew’s face.  He has seen the light. Jesus, we are told in Luke chapter one has come (1:79) “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”  The men in Caravaggio’s painting are sitting in darkness.  The two furthest from Christ are hunched over the money on the table and one of these doesn’t even look up.  He is too absorbed with counting his wealth.  There are two younger men who have turned and look surprised at the arrival of unexpected visitors but the centre figure on whom the light falls points at himself as though he were saying ‘me, you want me?’

The words of Christ are embodied in this encounter: “I am the light of the world. Says the Lord, whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) The tax collectors and their table with its coins, quills and ledgers are bathed in this light which is exposing more than the instruments of their trade.  Remember that the New Testament often pairs tax collectors with sinners because these men were quislings, collaborating with the occupying Romans and living from the suffering and exploitation of their neighbours.  The light that Christ has brought, not only illuminates the table it also illuminates the grime, the dirt, and their sin.

The hand of Christ that points at Matthew may look familiar. It is the same shape of hand that reaches out on the Sistine Chapel ceiling towards God the Father in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, painted some 90 years earlier. Michelangelo’s painting is the hand of Adam. Jesus is described in the New Testament as the new Adam, and he is calling Matthew to a new life, a new beginning and to a new creation.

Caravaggio’s painting depicts a particular moment in the life of Matthew, and it is not a for gone conclusion – will he follow Christ who has come to call him?  This dramatic scene is full of uncertainty.  One aspect of the contrast between the tax collectors in their sixteenth century clothing and that of Peter and Jesus is that we sense that the Lord and the Apostle have travelled considerable distances to find Matthew – this is no chance encounter.  When I looked at this I thought of the lines from Francis Thompson’s poem ‘the Hound of Heaven’:

I fled Him down the nights and down the days
I fled Him down the arches of the years
I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind, and in the midst of tears
I hid from him, and under running laughter.

In the poem Christ, who is the Hound of Heaven is called: ‘Him who summoneth.’  This poem by Thompson, like Caravaggio’s painting depicts a moment of realisation that all our pursuits for wealth, comfort and success can be hollow, or as Thompson says, in the light of Christ’s summons our lives can feel

‘Grimed with smears, amidst the dust o’ the mounded years- a mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap.  Days that have crackled and gone up in smoke.

But the light not only exposes our affectations, pretence, failures and sin it also offers the promise of a new beginning.

Jesus in this painting has come to Matthew as he was working, in middle of life. It is the same for us. Jesus comes to us – right in middle of the challenges and difficulties of our lives. There are many quotations in the New Testament from the Hebrew Bible and one of these is the book of Hebrews which quotes from Psalm 95, a Psalm I love: ‘Today, when you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.’  These are for all of us: ‘do not harden your heart.’

Perhaps Caravaggio’s painting of the Calling of Saint Matthew is not ultimately about Matthew the Apostle but about each of us and how we respond because it is certain that He is calling you. May we, like Matthew, rise up and follow.

To conclude, and hopefully to make you smile, a song that you may know from the film Sister Act: I will follow Him….

Click here to view Calling of Saint Matthew



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