Chiaroscuro

There is bittersweetness to the readings this week, which can help us make some level of peace with the tension, anxiety, and pain we both observe and experience in the world. While there is not really a good way to understand it, through the Gospel taken as a whole, we can “understand” it.

Some formulations of Christianity and many, many world views we see adopted throughout society give us an impression that is intolerant of suffering of any kind. Conversely, the traditional Catholic ethic (or “hermeneutic”) encompasses the totality of the Gospel, rather than taking it as component parts of a whole.

When it comes to biblical interpretation, theological tradition, and metaphysics, the Church has never embraced a picture that was devoid of shadow and darkness. The whole story of salvation, which is indeed the central story of human history, is touched by pain in every crease and wrinkle. In this way, light shows forth all the more brilliantly for it, darkness gives hue to the color of life, which gives depth to beauty.

Perhaps, in the way we experience the world, we can adopt an appreciation for the sort of holy chiaroscuro (a painting technique that makes use of contrasting light and darkness—leading to some of the most lifelike works of painted art, in my opinion) that the Divine Will employs in painting the fullness of human existence.

In the first reading, in a twisted kind of way, we see a king alleviate the suffering of the prophet Jeremiah, unjustly accused. (We’ll ignore, for now, the fact that the same king who showed this mercy was personally responsible for the injustice.) The psalm is filled with the thankful praises of one rescued from the very situation Jeremiah faced. The second reading is from Hebrews, a mysterious book among the most theologically rich in the New Testament—especially for Catholics. The actions in those verses are the things we are called to do: persevere, run the race, endure the cross despite its shame, endure opposition, struggle against sin, resist to the point of shedding blood. After all this, we may take a “seat at the right of the throne of God” with Christ.

None of this is to say we gain our own salvation, but it is through that struggle—and God’s intervening grace at every step—that we do not lose it.

Some of that struggle Jesus describes in his instruction to the Apostles: a fire on the earth, division that sets father in mutual opposition to son and mother mutually at odds with daughter. Jesus even tells us that he is in anguish, until his work is accomplished.

What, then, do we see in the suffering world around us? In the aged, slowly lost in the labyrinth of their own memories? In the poor, desperate for a way of life for their families? In the refugee, seeking a safe homeland? In the mothers, who have lost children to violence? In the unborn, deprived of even their right to live?

God never wills that we be subjected to evil, but all that does happen is twisted by the enemy of our souls to mean destruction and darkness. However, in his surpassing power, God twists these difficulties, not so much back to their original goodness, but further still, beyond the evil and ugliness we experience to a beauty and full glory that none could see—from glory, through hardship, to greater glory still.

We can and should live in the place of the psalmist today: I waited for the Lord, and he heard my cry. He drew me out of the pit of destruction. He put a new hymn of praise into my mouth. Though I am afflicted and poor, the Lord thinks of me; my help and deliverer. Remember Psalm 40 in every time of suffering and pray with hope that the words to that “hymn of praise” come to your lips.

For the Catholic, the Christian life is a way of goodness wrung through pain to full glory emerging from darkness. The Lord is painting our lives, not merely with colors that may be bright and pure, but with areas of darkness and deep tones redeemed through love to a beauty that has meaning and richness we could only behold having endured a road marked with suffering.

 

David Dunst
Director of Music and Liturgy

 

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