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Our Sermons

Sunday 24 January 2024

 

Among the fascinating paintings of Duccio di Buoninsegna, a Sienese painter active during the late 13th and early 14th century, there is one called The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew. Like Duccio’s The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, this small panel was part of the Maestà, one of the most important masterpieces in the history of Western painting which  now  forms part of the permanent exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. What fascinates me about Duccio di Buoninsegna is his style, which follows the Gothic tradition of painting in a more symbolic and evocative way, not paying much attention to space. Capturing the physical world was not this painter’s top priority. If you have a chance to observe the painting, you will notice that he depicted a rock by a shore, from which Jesus called the Apostles, flat on the gilded wooden panel background. The boat on which the Apostles stand seems weightless, as well as the fish that seem to be floating rhythmically in the water. What we should notice is the Apostles’ response to Jesus’ calling. 

Peter’s is almost immediate: there is no hesitation in his face as he turns toward Jesus’ voice, while Andrew seems to have barely heard Jesus speak, and appears to be  busy with his work. 

 

Today’s Gospel and the First Reading have this common theme: the calling. The history of Jonah starts with his calling to go and proclaim the destruction of the city of Nineveh. From the story it seems clear to Jonah that God will  destroy the city of Nineveh and its citizens, but then before their repentance and conversion, God changes His mind and forgives them. For Jonah this is unacceptable! Enraged by God’s forgiveness and mercy towards the Ninevites, Jonah rebels and abandons his mission to flee from God, which  ends badly for him. He is swallowed by a large fish (that looks very much like a whale). 

 

But let’s focus on Jonah’s calling, and why he refuses to accept God’s decision to be merciful  towards the Ninevites. Jonah seemed  to be convinced that God should not forgive the Ninevites. ‘They are bad people, he thinks, and deserve to be destroyed. Why is God hesitating? Is he not the God and Justice and Righteousness I know?’ 

Fascinating! This will represent a huge problem for Jonah. It causes him distress and gets him into a deep crisis. He doesn’t recognize his God anymore. The problem is not God, but his image of him. As a matter of fact, Jonah’s image of God is vengeful and merciless. A just God should destroy the evildoers and reward the good guys. For Jonah reality is black and white, good and bad people: no middle ground exists in his vision of the world. Therefore, from his point of view the only possible outcome of God’s decision to forgive and be merciful is chaos and destruction. 

 

Paradoxically this is the exact opposite of God’s thinking, which suggests that violence begets more violence, and destruction generates more destruction. 

What is happening right now in Gaza, in Sudan and Ukraine is tragic, but faithful reflection of Jonah’s way of thinking, of seeing the world: a world divided between good and bad guys, black and white: no grey area, no middle ground seems to be allowed in this vision of the world. Unfortunately we are powerless witnesses of the culture rooted in violence and fear. 

 

Therefore, the Christian message is certainly countercultural. It is clear to us that tolerance and unity come from promoting a different culture: a culture where people listen to each other. Jesus’ calling is also a strong appeal for a new awareness. A culture of listening will counterbalance these dangerous waves of violence, verbal and physical, which have been imposed on us along with the fabrication and manipulation of facts, which has led to a distorted vision of reality. 

The Scriptures invite us to be promoters of this culture of deep listening that creates trust and bridges cultures, ethnicities, and nationalities, rather than encouraging us to build walls of hatred and violence. This culture of listening is more realistic, because it acknowledges complexity as part of the human condition. 

Oversimplification is always dangerously close to totalitarian systems (like Fascism or the Nazi regime). It is true. We tend to simplify in order to understand reality. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we should turn our stereotypes or preconceptions into definite judgements. Therefore the culture of listening to each other  is crucially important, and we should never take it for granted. 

 

The Eucharist we celebrate today is the affirmation of this culture of listening. In our spiritual experience of meeting God, listening to the Scriptures and sharing the Bread and Wine, Body and Blood of our Lord, we learn to be silent in His presence, to quieten our wandering  minds, to connect with the source of Peace, to breath with the breath of God, and hear Him calling for us to become peacemakers and witnesses of His love for us and His world.            

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