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Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Town Fair

I live in a small town near Philly. During the summer the township organizes weekly events with good music, food and things for sale.
There is nothing like a town fair to make one wonder about human destiny.
It seems unreal that so many persons, that multitude of human beings, will all have eternal life. And what about all the other people walking the earth? It must be one crowded heaven up there! But surely a merciful God wouldn't pick some and leave the others behind! With all their differences, they look basically the same to me: Children holding ice creams and balloons, who will become cool teenagers in tight jeans and flip-flops, who will grow into adults pushing strollers and then into old people leaning on each other.

This year a friend of mine, who owns a shop on the main street, let me borrow her windows to display my paintings. Among Neapolitan landscapes, colorful birds and portraits, I hung a large painting depicting Jesus walking in the desert. The apostles are standing behind Him, while a woman is kneeling on the ground stretching her arms towards Him.
I sat between the two windows with my easel and started painting a young Mary, also kneeling on the ground while the Archangel Gabriel tenderly lays a hand on her head.
People stopped to watch me painting and to ask questions. Some of them had comments about the painting I was working on. Most of them realized that it depicted the Annunciation. A woman stood there for a while, then said:
"You are brave! Taking up a subject like this…!"
"I'm not afraid of affirming my faith", I answered.
"Me neither", she retorted, "but…to paint Mary…not all churches are devoted to her."
Not being in the mood for a theological debate, I said:
"Well, I just think that it's a nice subject for a painting".

A little later a man stopped by and, with a conspiratorial air, whispered that he knew what really happened when Mary became aware that she was going to give birth to Jesus.
"There was no angel!" he stated. "That part was made up by the Church! I'm Catholic, but I don't buy everything they say!"
Kind of annoyed at his attitude, I asked him how he could be so sure.
"Because I can think!" he answered.
Undeniably, people have very strong opinions about what supernatural event took place when Jesus was born. Unfortunately Christian churches find necessary to fight over it. Some even split hairs over the elements that lead to salvation.Which comes first, grace or good work? As for me, I enjoy the uncertainty.
Later on, a girl approached me and asked what my interpretation of the Annunciation was.
"I think that Mary felt very humbled at that moment", I answered.
Only then I realized that both the women I had depicted in a religious setting were kneeling.
"What's up with that?" I thought. "Have I forgotten everything about women's dignity after my conversion?"
Then it occurred to me that I was probably representing my own state of mind. I am humbled before the Mystery. I'm grateful for the gift of faith that Jesus bestowed on me and for all the grace that came with it. But although I feel that I've received a revelation, I can't be sure that I've got it entirely right.

Religion is essentially Mystery, for revelation is always cryptic and it's mediated through the person who receives it. Let's say, for example, that God "speaks" to an Indian yogi; he will verbalize grace according to his cultural background. Therefore the resulting message will be different from the one of an inspired Christian. Pope Benedict XVI examined this issue in depth in his "Many Religions, One Covenant".
There is nothing unassailable in matters of faith, except for our own personal experience of revelation. We may be filled with certainty, yet we know that others are too, even though their beliefs do not coincide with ours.
But what gives us certainty? How can we define revelation? I would say that it must be something that gives us no choice. We may not live up to it, but we must feel its commanding nature. This kind of revelation lies at the heart of the Christian faith. A true Christian will not carry out Jesus' message because it's appealing or morally sound. He will carry it out because Jesus will take over his or her whole life. If you let Him, little by little He will annihilate your old self and give you a new one, and you will be whole.

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