A Sacrament of the Ordinary (2 Cor 5.16-21

9 March 2013


I recall seeing for the first time Caravaggio’s supper at Emmaus. It stood out in the room where it is housed in the National Gallery. I remember being struck by the movement caused by the sudden realisation that this was the one whom the disciple had heard was dead; but more than that I was captivated by the ordinariness of the characters, they weren’t particularly handsome, far from it in fact, and their clothes were shabby, note the tare in the sleeve. Even Jesus had quite a forgettable demeanour, nothing exceptional at all; unlike of course the manner in which Caravaggio’s Romanesque contemporaries depicted this and similar scenes.

But that is what sets Caravaggio apart. While Rubens and the other Renaissance artists were presenting Jesus in perfect form, immaculate, stunningly beautiful in every way, Caravaggio, for those short seventeen years he was active as an artist, looked to those about him on the streets of Rome, Naples, Sicily and Malta. The faces and the bodies he replicated on canvas were those of the peasant and pauper, the artisan and the ordinary.

His message was quite simple, and one we can probably relate to better than some of Caravaggio’s contemporaries, that Christ and the Gospel of Christ are for the ordinary as well as the extraordinary.

At the time of the Early ChurchThere was a growing awareness that God was present in the ordinary. This had been part of the message of Jesus as interpreted in particular by Paul. He was grounded in a tradition that shied away from depicting the divine in human form. To this day you will not find human images in the stained glass windows of synagogues. But just as the spirit had become evident in firstly great leaders and kings, then priests and prophets, so now in the post Pentecost movement that was to become the Church, the spirit had become freely available for all.

Nevertheless for many their depictions of the divine had to be beautiful, it could be no other, ordinariness, let alone ugliness could not possibly represent the one who had been immaculately conceived.

But Caravaggio changed all that, right down to Stanley Spencer’s obese Jesus in the wilderness three centuries later. (Christ in the Wilderness)

This has shattering consequences even for us today. As those rooted in Wesleyan theology and tradition know that all are welcome at the table where a converting sacrament may be experienced.

It’s not just the apparently ugly of physical appearance who are welcome; it is also the unsavoury character, it is the abuser as well as abused, the sinner as well as the sinned against, otherwise the table would be a very lonely place for the president at the Eucharist.

But that sacrament of the ordinary may be experienced at tables other than those set aside for the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.
That sacrament may be realised in all its fullness over a shared butty in a works canteen or with the offering of a Big Mac to the guy sheltering in the subway.

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