The Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence (31 December 1599), Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (b. Milan 1571; d. Porto Ercole 1610)
Colossians 3 (NABRE): 1 If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.a 2 Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.b 4 When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory. 
It seems particularly “fitting” that it was a painting of the Nativity – in this case a masterpiece by no less than Caravaggio himself – that is the painting that was stolen.
“It was stolen?” we ask.
“Yes, it was, during the night of 17 October 1969. It was cut from its massive frame with box-cutter knives,” we hear reply.
We ask further, “But why would someone do this? It is so beautiful – a true masterwork – and it was installed in a sacred place where it was available to anyone. Why steal something that is already so available … and then hide it?”
They explain, “Someone desired it more than all the others who came only to gawk at it. And is it not true that people, when something (or Someone) is too available to them, find their capacity to grasp its preciousness dulled? The thief knew that it was precious, and sought it, and came to possess what he or she desired.”
“We never really thought about it like that,” we admit. “However, we do recall how the Scriptures in several places speak of God as a thief (!). This suggests that we humans are precious to God, but who prefer to hide ourselves from Him, such that God needs come as “a thief in the night” to steal us back to Him!”
Revelation 3: “If you are not watchful, I will come like a thief, and you will never know at what hour I will come upon you.” a
The authorities guess that this painting – the Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence – was stolen by the Sicilian mafia – the Cosa Nostra – from its centuries-long location in the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily. Its theft has been called “one of the most notorious heists in history.” And so far, in spite of all of our diligent searching for it, the painting remains lost; or better, not lost but hidden.
Matthew 13 – * 44 o“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field,* which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. 46 When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.
The more we search for something truly precious (and what a blessing it is when finally we know what that is!), and the more demands the seeking for it makes on us, the more our appreciation of its preciousness increases. So, if precious things were just given us, not hidden, then we would never become Searchers, and so never quite come into focus, and never get fully awake and fully aware of what is truly worth finding.
Matthew 2: 7 Then Herod called the magi secretly and ascertained from them the time of the star’s appearance. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.”
Can it be the case that God shows His greatest, and most skillful, love for us when He remains hidden from us? The incomparable Julian of Norwich (14th century) ponders God’s instruction to her:
It is God’s will that we receive three things from him as gifts as we seek. The first is that we seek willingly and diligently without sloth, as that may be with his grace, joyfully and happily, without unreasonable depression and useless sorrow. The second is that we wait for him steadfastly, out of love for him, without grumbling and contending against him, to the end of our lives, for that will last only for a time. The third is that we have great trust in him, out of complete and true faith, for it is his will that we know that he will appear, suddenly and blessedly, to all his lovers. For he works in secret, and he will be perceived, and his appearing will be very35 sudden. And he wants to be trusted, for he is very accessible, familiar and courteous36, blessed may he be.
What if not having what is truly precious is the very thing that gives us our precious life? And what if the “hidden” God has known this all along?
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
But now let us observe the painting up close.
First, we have the birth of a Child, a God-Child. We see Him there, set upon the hay. The Child is not yet swaddled. This Gift is “unclothed” (not hidden), in contrast to an earlier Gift that had “clothed” itself, making itself hidden.
Genesis 3: 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. 
Second, let us observe how those emotionally and personally closest to the Child; that is, his parents – Mary in the middle and Joseph (he is young!) to her left – are more “unclothed,” less “hidden,” than any other adult in the painting. It is as if the un-hiddenness of the God-Child makes those who are closest to Him able to become unhidden too. It is the reversal of something that happened in Paradise.
To “wear” nothing but oneself is what the true self desires.
We feel, then, a poignancy for those saints in the painting when we notice how Caravaggio presents them. Saint Lawrence (Lorenzo), to our left, is shown heavily draped in rich vesture. Saint Francis of Assisi standing with folded hands, to the right, is clothed in thick and warm woolens – clean and pressed and without a tear. Even the holiest of us, Caravaggio seems to insist, appear “hidden” in contrast to God when God appears before us, wearing nothing but Himself. Now that is what “unhidden” means!
1 Now I am sending my messenger—
he will prepare the way before me;
And the lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple;
The messenger of the covenant whom you desire—
see, he is coming! says the Lord of hosts.
2 But who can endure the day of his coming?
Who can stand firm when he appears?
For he will be like a refiner’s fire,
like fullers’ lye. 
Third, there is that magnificent Angel, a revelation all in itself. We see the Angel floating on the air, a higher-order being of enormous power come down from Heaven. It does not have to “fall” from above to below by the rule of gravity, but freely chooses to descend from Heaven to Earth, in order to do what Angels seem to be especially good at doing: they behold! That Angel is not on a mission there, because that was already fulfilled when it announced the good news to the shepherds, and then instructed them where to find the Child. It appears, then, that the Angel is there in the stable because it wanted to be there. Could it be that the Angel desired to “see” God in an even more profound way than ever it, or any Angel, had ever been given to see God? Was God’s ability, and willingness, to become smaller than an Angel something on the order of a detonation going off inside of the Angel’s theology, blasting its presuppositions to bits?
I say that it was more than the shepherds who went to Bethlehem to learn something.
Luke 2: Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
Then there is that banner the Angel carries, pulling it along with its left hand. The Latin means, “Glory to God in the highest.” So, what are we to make of this? God is supposed to be “up”, in the “highest” position … rather than there, in lowest position, even lower than that prayerful ox that is photo-bombing this portrait. Notice how bewildered the Angel has become! See that extended right hand pointing upwards? “You are supposed to be up there!,” that hand seems to express. “What are you doing down here?!”
And, finally, what are we to make of this Angel with dirty hands?
A TASK FOR WEEK FOUR OF ADVENT: The key “work” of this week is to be glad. As the Oxford English Dictionary notes about this adjective, its original meaning (c. 897 CE) – in Old English – described something or someone as “bright, shining, beautiful” … perhaps as Angels are wont to be. But the word came to mean instead what happens to a person who has seen something truly “bright, shining, and beautiful”, and so it means now a person who is “cheerful, joyous, or merry in disposition.” This year, and in the face of a constant saturation of our consciousness with fear, suspicions, and dangers, we must fight for an appropriate response to what God has done for us in Christ: Luke 2: 10 The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Let us fast, then, this week from receiving from any source or outlet that spews into our awareness dark thoughts, shadows of fear, and the icy remoteness of cynicism. Instead, let us practice gladness, as a spiritual exercise. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom God’s favor rests!”
 See Paul Lagassé, Columbia University, The Columbia Encyclopedia (New York; Detroit: Columbia University Press; Sold and distributed by Gale Group, 2000). “A revolutionary in art, Caravaggio was accused of imitating nature at the expense of ideal beauty. In religious scenes his use of models from the lower walks of life was considered irreverent. He generally worked directly on the canvas, a violation of current artistic procedure. His strong chiaroscuro technique of partially illuminating figures against a dark background was immediately adopted by his contemporaries, and although he had no pupils, the influence of his art was enormous.”
a 2:12; Ps 110:1; Phil 3:20; Eph 2:6.
b Rom 6:2–5.
 New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Col 3:1–4.
 See a balanced evaluation of the complex personal life of Caravaggio at Britannica Online: “Caravaggio’s reputation was clouded, during his own lifetime and in the aftermath of his untimely death, by the turbulent and ultimately tragic circumstances of his personal life. He committed murder and violent assault while at the peak of his success in Rome and consequently spent much of his later career—when he also created many of his most-compelling works—as a fugitive from justice. Since the mid-20th century his violent exploits and volatile character have enhanced his popular appeal as a perceived outsider and rebel against convention. His presumed but unproven homosexual tendencies, which have been inferred both from his paintings and from certain historical documents, have added greater intrigue to his legend. He might be described as the perfect Old Master for an age in love with the idea of celebrity and in thrall to the cult of a doomed self-destructive genius. In truth he was a more subtle, sensitive, and intellectually ambitious artist than the myths that have accumulated around him might suggest. He was also less of a hothead. Close inspection of the archival information concerning him, his friends, and his enemies—much expanded by late 20th-century research in the archives of Rome, Naples, and Malta—has revealed that even his most apparently impulsive acts were governed by a certain logic, even if it was often the logic of vendetta. He was a violent man, but he lived in violent times, and he was as much sinned against as sinning.”
 The Oxford English Dictionary concerning the verb “to gawk” – “To stare or gape stupidly.” It derives from the verb “to gaw” evidenced around 1200 CE but now obsolete, which means “to gape, to stare.” I have often noticed in Museums that I have visited how the crowds will cluster around a “famous” work of art … mostly because it is judged “famous”. How do I know? Because I watch how they talk about the artifact, and hear what they say, “We saw the Mona Lisa!” In other words, they mean that they can tell their friends, for example, “Yeh, we saw it last year.” But nothing in their demeanor, or in what I hear them say, indicates that they really saw and appreciated the work of art … and were made different as persons by having done so. They ask nothing of the work of art, and they certainly do not let the work of art make demands on them.
 The adjective “precious” and the adjective “priceless” or from the same Latin noun pretium -ii, neuter meaning, originally, “money”. It is decided by someone how much of something not precious (i.e., money; the unit of exchange) is required to be able to possess something that is precious in itself. Notice how often it has been the case that our sense of the preciousness of something, or someone, gets disconnected from its rootedness in the thing or person itself. We think that the money is precious, rather than that to which its value is attached. Consequently we begin to speak of a thing or person as precious because it requires so much money to buy it.
a Mt 24:42–44; Mk 13:33; 1 Thes 5:2; 2 Pt 3:10.
 New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Re 3:3.
 Jonathan Jones, “A Caravaggio for Christmas: is his Stolen Masterpiece ab out to Reappear?”, The Guardian. See https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/dec/16/a-caravaggio-for-christmas-is-his-stolen-nativity-masterpiece-about-to-return.
 See, for example, at Art News – Henri Neuendorf on 11 December 2015: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/stolen-caravaggio-replaced-replica-391166.
* The first two of the last three parables of the discourse have the same point. The person who finds a buried treasure and the merchant who finds a pearl of great price sell all that they have to acquire these finds; similarly, the one who understands the supreme value of the kingdom gives up whatever he must to obtain it. The joy with which this is done is made explicit in the first parable, but it may be presumed in the second also. The concluding parable of the fishnet resembles the explanation of the parable of the weeds with its stress upon the final exclusion of evil persons from the kingdom.
o Prv 2:4; 4:7.
* In the unsettled conditions of Palestine in Jesus’ time, it was not unusual to guard valuables by burying them in the ground.
 New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Mt 13:44–46.
 New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Mt 2:7–8.
 The Oxford English Dictionary at the noun “sloth” – “Physical or mental inactivity; disinclination to action, exertion, or labour; sluggishness, idleness, indolence, laziness.” The Greek word for this is akedía, which is spelled accidie (AK-si-dee) in English.
*35 ‘Very’: so SS, W; P, C: ‘sweet’ (a misunderstanding of ME ‘swithe’).
*36 So W; P, C have not ‘accessible’, SS have not ‘courteous’.
 Julian of Norwich, Julian of Norwich: Showings, ed. Richard J. Payne, trans. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), 196. These lines are taken from the closing lines of her Shewing #2 in the Long Text (LT).
 See, for example, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51296/ithaka-56d22eef917ec. The closing lines of the magnificent poem by C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933) called “Ithaka”. Ithaka, is the home island of Odysseus, who spent ten years – the epic account of this written by Homer, The Odyssey – trying to get back home from the Trojan War, to get back to his wife Penélope and his son Telémachus. But because of the anger of a god, Poseidon, and because of the danger of the world, Odysseus spends years suffering setbacks, and personal loss, and harrowing adventures. Cavafy’s point is that unless one has discovered something truly precious to seek in his or her life, then he or she will never “set out”, will never understand why something or someone is so precious, and he or she will never grow wise. “Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.” (This translation from modern Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.)
 The Oxford English Dictionary at the verb “to swaddle” (14th century) – “To bind (an infant) in swaddling-clothes.” I have heard women tell me that one “swaddles” a newborn as a way of helping it adapt to life outside of the womb, the womb that is a highly constrained environment. The baby needs to be allowed time to adapt to an environment that suddenly is vastly bigger, and unconstrained, than anything it has known. Thus, “swaddling” is a kindness extended the newborn. But in this painting, I have interpreted the “swaddling clothes” as something humans devise and use to cover up, or to hide, a person from view.
 New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Ge 3:7.
 The Oxford English Dictionary at the noun “poignancy” (late 17th century) – “Keenness or sharpness of feeling or emotion, especially of sadness, regret, sorrow.”
 St. Laurence/Lawrence/Lorenzo died around 258 CE a martyr at the hands of the Roman Empire – scourged and then roasted on a gridiron. The story goes that when the Romans demanded from him the wealth of the particular church for which he served as guardian of its treasures. He promptly went out and gave all of those “riches” away … and then brought to the Roman officials the poor, the blind, and the sick, saying “Here are the true riches of the Church … as you requested them of me.” Apparently the authorities were not amused and judged it expedient to beat and roast the Teacher of the lesson that they judged obtuse. The bag of money that Caravaggio places over Lawrence’s shoulder in the painting is one of the typical “attributes” of St. Lawrence in western painting.
 St. Francis of Assisi (c. 1181-1226 CE) was a mystic of highest degree and founder of the Franciscan Order. His profound personal encounter with the “lostness” and “poverty” of being a prisoner, and then his having nearly died from disease, gave him the capacity, for the first time, to see the poor … and Christ with them. For a reality so easy to see all around us in Portland, OR, we might ask ourselves, how many of us actually see those who are poor? We do look at them; we know how to gawk. But do we, can we, see them, rather than just the wretched circumstances in which they are held?
 That Caravaggio painted them this way is surprising, because he was well-known for not painting Saints in this way. As Britannica Online notes: “He accentuated the poverty and common humanity of Christ and his followers, the Apostles, saints, and martyrs, by emphasizing their ragged clothing and dirty feet.” The fact that Caravaggio has painted St. Lawrence and St. Francis of Assisi in expensive attire suggests to me that he wants to emphasize the contrast between the sheer availability of God to us in Christ, on the one hand, and the Saints, on the other hand, who even in their great holiness of life are unable to be available to others to the same breath-taking degree.
 New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Mal 3:1–2.
 Concerning Angels as “it” – I imagine that there have been (medieval) discourses concerning the “angelic order” of creation that explored whether Angels have gender, or whatever they have/are that is greater than gender. But I do not recall what their researches and learned judgments concluded about this. But it has never occurred to me that Angels are confused, or bothered and bewildered (to quote a Gershwin lyric), which should be evidence enough that they have no gender.
 New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Lk 2:15.
 The banner reads “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” That “excelsis” (from the Latin verb excello -ere, 3rd conjugation) indicates a motion from below to above, thus “to raise up, to elevate” something or Someone. But hidden from us is the reason why something or Someone is “raised up” or “elevated”. But the Nova Vulgata Bibliorum Sacrorum Edition (the current critical edition of the Bible in Latin) reads: “Gloria in altissimis Deo.” The Latin altus -a -um, whose superlative form is altissimus –a -um, refers first and foremost to location; that is, the place highest over all other beings. I like altissimis because it allows us to ponder the surprise that God Who dwells in the highest position chose to appear in the lowest … and doing so without “shedding” or “losing” His divine identity. The Highest is simultaneously the Lowest!
Leave a Reply