11 October 2015

Before the look of Jesus, falsehood melts away and joy is like swords

The encounter of Jesus with the rich young official is recounted in each of the three synoptic Gospels, namely, those written by the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and proclaimed for us today at the Holy Mass. Their accounts are very similar, but differ in the level of details provided for our meditation.

Both Saints Matthew and Luke simply recount the question posed to Jesus by the rich young man, followed immediately by Jesus' response to him (Matthew 19:16-22; Luke 18:18-23).

Saint Mark, however, includes a curious detail, that after the rich young man said he had kept all of the commandments since his youth, "Jesus, looking at him, loved him" (Mark 10:21). Did the young man see Jesus' love for him in his eyes? Did he hear the compassion in Jesus' voice? Did he know how tenderly Jesus' longed for him not simply to be near eternal life, but to fully possess it?

I suspect he did, because he left the presence of Jesus sad (cf. Mark 10:22, Matthew 19:22); Saint Luke notes that he went away "quite sad" (Luke18:23). But if he saw Jesus' love for him, if he heard his compassion and knew how much he longed for him, why did the young man go away sad? For the reason, I suspect, that Saint Peter "went out and began to weep bitterly" after Jesus "turned and looked at Peter" near the fire (Luke 22:62,61). 

When Jesus turned and looked at both the rich young man and at Peter, they saw the great depth of his love for them in his eyes and at the same time knew how much their love for him paled in comparison. Both knew that "before his gaze all falsehood melts away."[1] What great happiness they must have known, and yet what great anguish, as well.

This, I guess, is something of what J.R.R. Tolkien meant when he wrote that the host who fought on the Field of Cormallen listened to the minstrel recount their valorous deeds “until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.”[2] Surely this is something of the experience of the rich young man and of Saint Luke, not by words but by the very look of Jesus. They knew that "no creature is concealed from him" and that "everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account" (Hebrews 4:13).

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke of this kind of encounter with Jesus as the experience of Purgatory. He wrote:
This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ's Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.[3]
But is such an encounter possible for us, here and now? Can we look into his eyes and see the great depth of his love for us? I believe we can, in Manoppello, where the veil that covered in his face in the tomb is housed with great honor.

In this mysterious veil, we can look upon the image of his face and see the love in his eyes. We can almost say his tenderness in his gentle smile. We can experience his longing for us to be with him, and out longing for him.

[1] Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, 47.
[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Book 6.4. Published as The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1955), 933.
[3] Benedict XVI, ibid.

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