Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da (1571–1610) Italian artist. His earliest religious work was Flight into Egypt (1595/7), painted for Cardinal del Monte, who obtained for him his commission for his first major work, a series of three pictures in San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, depicting the Calling of St. Matthew, Martyrdom of the Saint, and Saint Inspired by an Angel. These works introduced his vivid realism and his down-to-earth portrayal of his subjects in common settings, quite unlike the artificial grandiloquence of religious art. The same realism appears in Madonna di Loreto (1604/5), Madonna dei Palafrenieri (1605), Death of the Virgin (1606), and the Entombment of Christ (1602/4). His brief stay in Malta produced the Decollation of St. John the Baptist (1607/8). Caravaggio’s influence was immense, mainly outside Italy.
George Thomas Kurian, Nelson’s New Christian Dictionary: The Authoritative Resource on the Christian World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001).
It was, perhaps, in pursuit of truth rather than traditional notions of beauty that Caravaggio broke with the conventions of his time and place, early seventeenth-century Italy, to paint some of the most direct, unvarnished representations of the gospel that the West had seen. Such is Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ (1602–1604),22 in which the Virgin Mary could be any grieving mother, and Mary Magdalene a girl of the street, while Joseph of Arimathea has been given the sun-baked face of a peasant. Caravaggio’s image broke with all decorum but, in so doing, made the grief of Christ’s followers palpable and deeply moving. In turn the viewer is drawn into their emotion and their world, thus bringing Christ that much nearer. It was from such works that Rembrandt took his cue, as a current exhibition in Amsterdam makes clear.23
Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands, and Roger Lundin, The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 100.
He who learns to live the interior life and to take little account of outward things, does not seek special places or times to perform devout exercises. A spiritual man quickly recollects himself because he has never wasted his attention upon externals. No outside work, no business that cannot wait stands in his way. He adjusts himself to things as they happen. He whose disposition is well ordered cares nothing about the strange, perverse behavior of others, for a man is upset and distracted only in proportion as he engrosses himself in externals.
Christ Appears to the Disciples (Thomas Absent)
19 Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” 22 And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”
Christ Appears to the Disciples (Thomas Present)
26 And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” 27 Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” 28 And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
The Purpose of John’s Gospel
30 And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.
Have you ever been paralyzed by fear? The disciples certainly were after the crucifixion of Jesus. It’s easy to understand. They surely felt the terror of a similar fate for themselves, but they also must have felt orphaned and alone. It’s powerful to understand how His return to them vanquished their fear.
As Ken Kovacs writes in his book Out of the Depths:
It’s precisely in such a context that we hear Jesus’ words to his disciples. God will not allow fear to have the last word. In fear the disciples try to hide themselves from a world that resists all the implications of the life-changing, liberating power of resurrection. But fear can’t hinder the new life Jesus extends to us! Resurrection life acknowledges the fear, but does not allow the fear to divert or destroy what God is doing through Jesus and through us. We’re given a truly remarkable image here. I love the way the resurrected Jesus appears within the locked room and stands among them there; he stands within the confines of their fear; he appears and stands in their place of greatest fear and says, “Peace be with you.” Even locked doors can’t keep him out. Christ’s boldness overcomes every barrier we try to erect in fear. We’re not meant to live behind locked doors. Within the confines of all our fears, Jesus continues to stand among us, unlocking our prisons of fear, and saying, “Peace be with you.”
The place of fear can become the place of presence, the place of peace, the place of resurrection. The text tells us that their fear was replaced with rejoicing at the sight of his presence. That’s what resurrection can do. That’s what the resurrected Lord continues to do.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Kenneth E. Kovacs is pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, Maryland, and has served congregations in St. Andrews, Scotland, and Mendham, New Jersey. Ken studied at Rutgers College, Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and received his Ph.D. in practical theology from the University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland. He is also an analyst-in-training at the C. G. Jung Institute-Zürich. Author of The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter & Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011) and Out of the Depths: Sermons and Essays (Parson’s Porch, 2016), his current research areas include C. G. Jung and contemporary Christian experience. Ken has served on the board of the Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, is a current board member of the Presbyterian Writers Guild, and a book reviewer for The Presbyterian Outlook.
St. Paul exhorts the Philippians (4:6-7) not to be anxious about anything but to make all their concerns a subject of thankful prayer to God, promising that if they do so “the peace of God which passeth all understanding” will keep (lit. “stand guard over”) their hearts and minds. The thought echoes Isa. 26:3: “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee,” and takes up Jesus’ exhortation to have no concern over practical needs because “your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things” (Matt. 6:24-34). The peace Paul speaks of passes all understanding both in the sense that it is inconceivably great, beyond human capacity to comprehend (cf. Eph. 3:19, 20), and also in that it is far better than any “peace” which human “understanding” could bring. Notably, it is a peace which is found in the midst of trouble, not by escaping from it.
Commenting on Job 9:4 (Vg) in which Job observes that God is “wise in heart and mighty in strength. Who has resisted him, and had peace?” Wyclif says that “we are to see by this description of peace that it is achieved by conformity of [one’s] will to that of God.” He goes on to say that peace is not, as one might expect, a matter of temporal quietude free from attack or hostility; rather, it is just when the battle is raging most fiercely that one is most likely to experience the benefits of being at peace with God (Sermones, 4.25). A later Wycliffite writer takes up the theme, “þer be trew pees and fals pees, and thai be ful diverse”—true peace being grounded in God, false peace grounded in “rest with our enemies” when “we assent to þem withoute aʒen-standyng” (Arnold, ed., Selected English Works of John Wyclif , 1.321).
In George Herbert’s “The Sacrifice” the O Vos Omnes hymn is developed with Christ drawing a contrast between himself and Barabbas: “And a seditious murderer he was: / But I the Prince of Peace; peace that doth passe / All understanding, more than heav’n doth glasse” (117-19; cf. Ruskin, Unto This Last, chap. 3). Herbert’s poem “Peace” makes the point that the “Prince of Peace” himself had no peace: “He sweetly liv’d; yet sweetnesse did not save / His life from foes” (25-26), and that he won peace for others at the expense of his own struggle and death (cf. A Priest to the Temple, chap. 34). In Vaughan’s “Peace” the poet speaks of a peace which is not to be found in this life, but in “a Countrie / Far beyond the stars,” sentiments echoed in an early 20th-cent. American sonnet by Joyce Kilmer, written while the author was soldiering in France during World War I (“The Peacemaker”). Aldous Huxley thinks hints of such peace can be derived from art: “Even from the perfection of minor masterpieces—certain sonnets of Mallarmé, for instance, certain Chinese ceramics—we can derive illuminating hints about the ‘something far more deeply interfused,’ about ‘the peace of God that passeth understanding’“ (Ends and Means, chap. 14; cf. Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey,” 96). In Black Boy Richard Wright tells of an unsuccessful application of the traditional interpretation in the home of his grandmother: “Granny bore the standard for God, but she was always fighting. The peace that passes understanding never dwelt with us.” Recalling the prophetic promise that in the days of the Messiah peace shall flow “as a river” (Isa. 48:18; 53:5), Margaret Avison writes that “Word has arrived that / peace will brim up, will come / ‘like a river and the / glory … like a flowing stream’“—an unprecedented, unimagined grace (“Stone’s Secret,” 20-22).
David L. Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992).
ART: For a deep dive on The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio (1601-2), seeHERE
I know not: one indeed I knew In many a subtle question versed, Who touch’d a jarring lyre at first, But ever strove to make it true:
Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds, At last he beat his music out. There lives more faith in honest doubt, Believe me, than in half the creeds.
He fought his doubts and gather’d strength, He would not make his judgment blind, He faced the spectres of the mind And laid them: thus he came at length
To find a stronger faith his own; And Power was with him in the night, Which makes the darkness and the light, And dwells not in the light alone,
But in the darkness and the cloud, As over Siniai’s peaks of old, While Israel made their gods of gold, Altho’ the trumpet blew so loud.
Hear Malcolm Guite read today’s poem
Doubt is not unbelief. It is a friend of Truth because honest Doubt is a seeker and Truth welcomes investigation. Tennyson wrote his famous In Memoriam as a response to and journal of grief following the death of his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam. In it he lays bear the devastation which led to a crisis of faith, but to our benefit he carries us through to a better conclusion.
In The Word in the Wilderness, Malcolm Guite writes:
Towards the end of In Memoriam Tennyson addresses those who condemn doubters as weak, and suppress or demonize their own doubts. He shows instead that a mature and balanced faith is not one which has refused the agony and the wrestling but one that has been through them and grown from them. Paradoxically this famous passage about ‘faith in honest doubt, is also a place in which he makes one of his most explicit appeals to scripture, to the darkness and cloud of Sinai, contrasted with the sparkling certainties of the Golden Calf.
Has doubt ever brought you closer to God?
Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.”
24Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
25When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!”
Dig Deeper: Literature & Liturgy
(1809–1892) The most popular English poet of the latter half of the nineteenth century, Tennyson was born in Somersby, Lincolnshire, the son of a country rector. He and his brother began to write verse and published a volume titled Poems by Two Brothers in 1827, the year Alfred left for Cambridge. He remained there until 1831, when financial need obligated him to return home, where he devoted himself to the craft of poetry. At Cambridge he developed a close friendship with Arthur Henry Hallam, who later became engaged to Tennyson’s sister. Hallam’s sudden death in Vienna at age twenty-two led to the publication of a long sequence of elegies by the poet in tribute to his friend. Finally completed and published in 1850, In Memoriam, is generally considered to be Tennyson’s finest work. Some parts of the poem have been made into hymns. Also in 1850 Tennyson was appointed Poet Laureate as successor to William Wordsworth.
His earlier poems—“Mariana,” “The Palace of Art,” “The Lotus Eaters,” “The Lady of Shalott,” “Ulysses,” and “Locksley Hall”—won for Tennyson wide acclaim. His poetry is always touched with the spirit of romanticism that early reminded critics of Keats. With the publication of In Memoriam Tennyson was secure, his income substantial, enabling him to buy a house in the country and to marry Emily Sellwood. Idylls of the King, a twelve-part narrative poem based on the Arthurian legends, occupied much of the latter part of Tennyson’s life. A good portion of Tennyson’s work is idealistic and morally high-minded. His religious convictions were expressed in terms of hope for an afterlife, but these hopes were rarely supported by strong doctrinal commitment. “Crossing the Bar,” his best known single poem, was written when the poet was eighty years old. Tennyson’s “Strong Son of God, Immortal Love” (1850) found its way into Christian hymnody when it was set to music by Leo Sowerby in 1941. He was buried in Westminster Abbey next to Robert Browning.
P.M. Bechtel, “Tennyson, Lord Alfred,” ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort, Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 664.
Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings. For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page.
For every day from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Day, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it.
Lent is a time to reorient ourselves, clarify our minds, slow down, recover from distraction and focus on the values of God’s kingdom. Poetry, with its power to awaken the mind, is an ideal companion for such a time. This collection enables us to turn aside from everyday routine and experience moments of transfigured vision as we journey through the desert landscape of Lent and find refreshment along the way.
Following each poem with a helpful prose reflection, Malcolm Guite has selected from classical and contemporary poets, from Dante, John Donne and George Herbert to Seamus Heaney, Rowan Williams and Gillian Clarke, and his own acclaimed poetry.