Later on this week we will celebrate the feast of St Matthew. I think everyone knows about Matthew: he is that disciple/apostle/evangelist who changes from being a dishonest tax collector to following Jesus.
If you ever visit Rome then be sure to visit the Church of San Luigi, it is the French national church in Rome, most nations have a church that is their own in the city. Inside the church there are small side chapels with altars, as there are in most of those churches in Rome. Normally in the past these belonged to some rich patron or family and often were decorated by them.
In the Church of San Luigi, nearest the main altar there is a side chapel dedicated to St Matthew. This chapel was owned by a cardinal of 16th century whose name was Matthew Contarelli. Out of affection for this saint, and for the fact that it was his Christian name, he dedicated the chapel to the honour of St Matthew. After his death he willed that some art works honouring the saint be put there in the chapel, to adorn it. He especially wanted paintings of St Matthew’s conversion, Mathew writing his Gospel and Matthew’s martyrdom to be put there. The executors of his will turned to a young painter in Rome to do the work, a fiery individual called Caravaggio. He was to execute and paint 3 of the finest paintings in Rome which to this day have crowds looking at them in wonder, in the same way that they look at wonder at the Sistine chapel’s ceiling or the last judgment. The executors were a bit prissy, prudish and scrupulous, the painting of Matthew writing his Gospel, they got him to re-paint because they didn’t think it appropriate that Matthew was seen crossing his legs. Don’t ask me what that was all about, not what a saint should be doing!
The main painting of the three, that most catches the attention, is the conversion of St. Matthew, that moment when Matthew is at the crossroad of his life and is changed from being a dishonest tax collector to a disciple of the Lord. As so often, Caravaggio paints thing in darkness and light. There is a room and a group of men, dressed in clothes of the 16thcentury, it is obviously a bar or tavern, the group are young and old, seated at the table they are drinking and perhaps playing some sort of game. In the shadows of the room is Jesus with Peter, dressed (strangely) not in clothes of 16thcentury but 1st century clothes, flowing garments. There is a window high up in the wall, that casts a shard, a beam of light that crosses the painting and illumines the group of people at the table but the darkness of the room is made even thicker by the presence of this bright light. Jesus raises his hands and points to one of the men sitting at the table, a bearded man and the man in turn points to himself, as if to say “me, is it me” (the man clearly is Matthew). That outstretched arm, the pointing finger is apparently meant to represent deliberately the same gesture that Michelangelo painted in the Sistine chapel, that finger of God which touches the finger of Adam and gives him life, the divine choice, the divine election.
It is an amazing painting. It has this incredible use of darkness and light. The faces are faces we would recognise, faces that we have seen ourselves, old and young people - human faces that convey different emotions - surprise, regret, disinterest etc. You can feel the cramped and airless and dark tavern, lit by this beam of light coming from the window.
But most if all it conveys some deep Christian message. It conveys that moment of conversion, that moment when we are at the crossroads. The raised arm of the Lord, that finger that points us out, that singles us out, that chooses you and me. That feeling of the one pointed out that says, is it me, are you sure it is me, is it not someone else? And that sense that he chooses the person not because they are on their knees praying but he chooses us where we are, in the tavern, counting the money that we have extorted from others, namely in the midst of life and all its ills. It recalls St Paul’s great saying in Romans 5: 8 “While we were still in our sins, Christ died for us”. He chooses us not because we are good or do good things, he chooses us in the midst of everything, just because he chooses.
You might know that the present Pope has a great devotion to St Matthew and particularly the story of Matthew’s conversion. He often says that when he re-heard this story in a Church as a young man, it had a profound effect on him. He traces a personal conversion from it and the desire to offer his life to God from that story. He sensed that the words were directed to him too, the Lord looking with compassion on him too and chose him – these words seem to mean a lot to him. He even has a Latin phrase on his coat of arms taken from 21stsermon of St Bede, an English monk, writing on the conversion if St Matthew Miserando et eligendo (which means having compassion he chose him). It refers to that moment of Matthew’s conversion, which clearly means a lot to the present Pope.
There is something about that moment, that crossroads moment, that moment of conversion. That moment when you know that the words are directed to you. That his gaze is turned in your direction, the words are being spoken to you. That his finger is pointed in your direction. It doesn’t need to come in some holy place while you are on your knees praying, but it can come, just like the painting depicts, in the midst of life, like Matthew in that dark airless tavern, dimly lit, while he is counting his money or gambling, or drinking or playing cards with his friends – it can come anywhere and at anytime, in the middle of life and living.
Today’s Gospel also has that sense of people at the crossroads. Jesus is walking along with his disciples and they have reached a crossroads in his life and ministry. The road he is now about to take is towards his death. Peter doesn’t want him to take this road, he doesn’t want him to take this direction. But Jesus resolutely takes this road and the disciples follow, bewildered, sad and afraid of what is to come.
One of the things about life is that there are many crossroads along the way. There are many times when we come to that point on the road and wonder what road we will we take. Will we turn left or right, will we go straight ahead or will we turn back. Whatever road we take will dictate our future, there is the chance that we will make the right decision or there is also the chance we will be making some big mistake which cannot be undone. How many times in life have people wondered what would have become of them if they had taken a different road, made a different choice.
Matthew and Peter and the disciples also had that sense of being at the crossroads )Matthew in his tavern/Petr and the Apostles on the road at Caesarea-Philipi), following Jesus would change their life, taking the road with him would change everything.
Is there are a right road to take in life or, at the end of the day, are there just roads? Are we just fated to take a road and that be our lot in life, like a lucky or unlucky throw of the dice? Is one road as a good as the next road? Do all roads lead to the same place?
All of us throughout our lives stand at those different crossroads and are faced with those choices of which road to take, what direction to go in.
For Matthew and Peter and the Apostles there seems no other option than to take the road with Jesus, no other way to go, no other road that is appealing, no other road that makes sense.
To take that road you give a nod to faith. Faith will be your map, faith will be your compass. Faith will direct your steps. Faith will sustain you when you are tired and afraid, faith will be your comfort and consolation.
In taking this road, it’s a risk, because you don’t know where it is leading or what you will be asked to do, you only know it is the right road, it is the only road to take. Matthew and Peter and the other apostles knew that.
In that dark tavern, painted by Caravaggio, while playing cards and counting his ill gotten gains, the Lord pointed Matthew out and invited him to take the road with him. Matthew leaves that table, his friends and money and follows him. To where – he didn’t know. To do what he had no idea. He left everything behind simply to take to take the road with him.