the divine touch: Matthew 8

read Matthew 8.  When I first saw the Sistine Chapel, twenty-four years ago, it was clouded in darkness. When I saw it again this summer, its colors burst off the ceiling in vivid technicolor.  The chapel had been restored in a labor of love that lasted from 1980 to 1999.  The change reminded me of seeing a colorized black-and-white movie. Part of you longs for the beloved familiar worn black-and-white version, even as another part of you adores the sheer gaudiness of the new almost-fake over-bright colors.

Apparently I’m not the only one to have mixed feelings about the Sistine Chapel’s restoration. Controversy surrounds it.  Some claim that the restorers didn’t realize Michelangelo’s true intentions.  When they began the restoration project, the restorers discovered that the entire interior was covered with a grime of candle smoke, made of wax and soot, as well as layers of the smoke and exhaust fumes of the city.  The building had shifted since Michelangelo began his work on the ceiling in 1508, causing cracks.  Water seepage had occurred, which in turn brought salt, causing the surface of the frescoes to bubble and lift.  The earlier restoration attempts had also all left their marks.  In previous centuries, restorers had tried various different methods including linseed oil (1547); wiping the frescoes with bread (1625); and trying to clean it with sponges dipped in wine (1713).  I, too, was part of the problem: the crowds of tourists bring heat, humidity, dust and bacteria.

James Beck, a particularly vocal critic of the Sistine Chapel project, argues that any restoration puts artwork at risk: “In the rhetoric of this conversation, [the restorers] say that the previous restoration was no good – now we’re going to make a really good one.  It’s like having a facelift.  How many times can people go through one without their poor faces looking like an orange peel?”

We respond to this story of a well-intentioned but potentially harmful restoration, just as we stare in horrified fascination at the sight of the “Cat Lady” and her multiple face-lifts, because there is something in each of us that longs for, but fears, restoration.  We, too, want the grime and wax and soot removed.  We want lifted the stain left by transient visitors.  We want to be seen as our artist created us to be.

At the same time, we’re terrified at the thought of having our restoration done wrong. We’ve put ourselves in the hands of less gifted restorers, who promised big but couldn’t deliver, and they’ve all left their mark.  How are we to trust God with the task when we still remember the stale bread and cheap wine left by others?  We put up walls to keep God out, because we don’t trust anyone.  We don’t want to be hurt again, and if that means retaining our worn out, familiar, black and white selves, we’ll do it, thank you very much.

In Matthew 8, we see a Jesus who restores every person he meets with such an individualized touch, that we begin to wonder if perhaps we could trust him, after all. He touches the leper, but he doesn’t touch the centurion’s slave.  Then, like the movements of a great poem (as my friend Virginia Apple put it), he touches Peter’s mother-in-law.   Why does Christ touch, not touch, then touch, in order to heal?

The leper is the untouchable.  One imagines that no one has touched this man for years.  People are afraid his disease is contagious, the way people think divorce or death or cancer is contagious.  Even before the power left Christ – something we know happens when he heals because he said as much when the woman touched the hem of his robe – one imagines that the healing had already begun when Christ reached his hand toward a man from whom everyone else turned away.  The Roman soldier, on the other hand, didn’t need Christ to touch his servant because he understood the enormity of Christ’s power.  I don’t know why Peter’s mother-in-law needed touching, but I know Christ knew.  Maybe her daughter and Peter ignored her.  Maybe she had no husband.  Maybe she had no daughter anymore.  Whatever it was, I know one thing: she needed to be touched.

Christ then seems to say almost the opposite thing to two different people.  One man says, “I’ll follow you wherever you go,” and Christ says he can’t.  Another man says, “I’ll follow you after I do something important,” and Christ tells him to come now.  Why the difference?  Because we “judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”  1 Sam. 16:7.

In the same chapter, Christ casts out many evil spirits “with a simple command,” yet he casts the legions of demons that were making two men violent into a herd of pigs.  Why the difference?  On its face the only difference is that these demons beg him to.  I have always been struck by the way Christ here demonstrates the reality of ‘ask and it shall be given unto you’ – even when it’s demons who do the asking.  The demons shriek, “if you cast us out, send us into that herd of pigs,” and you can almost imagine Christ shrugging and saying, “fine.  If that’s what you REALLY want.”  The herd of pigs promptly tumbles over the cliff.  It is an unforgettable image of what happens to any of us when we give in to the voice of evil.  The violence urged on by that voice will destroy us, along with everything else in our path.

Even without understanding exactly why Christ heals each person differently, one senses in all these stories a true artist at work.  Christ knows when to touch, when to refrain from touching.  He knows when to be firm, and when to be gentle.  He knows when to encourage and when to reprimand.  He knows when to sleep and when to make the surface of the water “as smooth as glass.”  He knows when to speak and when to remain silent.  God is the perfect restorer.  He designed each of us with a plan in mind.   He wants to wipe away from our faces the marks left by every tear.  He wants to restore to our bodies the health sapped by our poor choices or by the abuse inflicted on us by others through no fault of our own.  He promises to heal us with the true bread and wine – his body and his blood poured out for us.

We can trust him because it cost him everything to heal us.  Just as legend has it that Michelangelo sacrificed his eyesight in order to paint God’s finger stretching toward the finger of Adam on the Sistine Chapel, so our Lord lost his eyesight and even his life in order to make a way to restore each of us to the glorious person he created us to be.  In the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo left a gap between God and Adam’s fingers.  If you’re in pain, if you’re lonely, if you’re hurt – stretch your finger toward God.  You will find there is no gap.  He’s already stretched his fingers toward you.

posted by Caroline Coleman in on October 27, 2011

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