Sunday, January 24, 2010
Works of mercy
For many Protestants, the single criterion for salvation is making a “decision for Christ” -- an intellectual affirmation that Christ is Lord. It has very little to do with how we live and everything to do with how we think. But Jesus, as we meet him in the New Testament, says very little about the criteria for salvation at the Last Judgment. Mainly the Gospel has to do with how we live here and now and how we relate to each other. Jesus sums up the law and the prophets in just a few words: to love God with all one's heart, mind and soul, and to love one's neighbor as oneself. Just one sentence.
Yet there is a short text in St. Matthew's Gospel in which Christ speaks in a surprising way about the Last Judgment. It turns out that one isn't saved by getting a passing grade in theology.
Jesus describes all who have ever lived being gathered together and divided "like sheep from goats."
To those on one side, Christ says, "Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (Matthew 25)
Then there are the others. It turns out that those who didn't love their neighbor-in-need failed to love God, no matter many Bible verses they could recite.
Main point? The works of mercy (feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, etc.) connect us to the God of Mercy.
There are many works of art that give visual expression to this crucial aspect of the Gospel. Among those I find most impressive is a very local work of art made in 1504 by an artist who is known only as "the Master of Alkmaar." Originally his seven-panel work hung in the Holy Spirit House of Hospitality in Alkmaar. Later it was moved to the town's cathedral. In the last century, it became part of the Rijksmuseum collection in Amsterdam. Currently, while the Rijksmuseum is undergoing reconstruction, it hangs in Rotterdam at the Boijmans Museum, where Nancy and I visited it yesterday.
In five of the seven panels, Christ -- without a halo -- is present but unrecognized. In this first panel, he looks directly toward the viewer. Only in the panel of the burial of the dead, sitting on a rainbow, is Christ revealed as Pantocrator, Lord of the Cosmos.
I've gathered a series of photos of the seven panels, plus other paintings I've photographed at other times, into a Flickr folder labeled "Works of Mercy":
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