We are instructed to stay awake because the moment when Jesus will come again in glory is unknown to all except God (see Mark 13:37 ESV).
As for me, how do I prepare myself? What tools do I have?
These are my tools.
I have Scripture. In the Bible we learn the story of how humankind has been condemned to the valley of death. Original Sin doomed us. But God prepares for our salvation, to arrive at a time unknown except by Him.
I have prayer. We may open our souls in conversation with Him. While we are still in the valley of death, we may open our souls for thanksgiving, for supplication, and for intercession.
I have discipline. We can practice the spiritual arts of the Christians who have gone before us, who used the disciplines of simplicity, of solitude, of submission, and of service to glorify God, who knows when the time-that-will-come, will come.
And I have art. We humans reflect on, mirror and sanctify our own experience of humanness with what we create. The energy by which we create is a gift from God, by which He encourages us to send glory back to Him.
Some of what artists make honors our Creator. Some of what artists make does not honor our Creator. When I was young, art that dishonored the Creator sometimes seemed excitingly revelatory to me.
“Look, this thing that has been created is about brilliant us, not about dreary Him. How splendid we are!”
Now, at my older age, not so.
Among the arts, the one that attracts the most of my attention is visual art—drawing and painting. That’s because I am a writer, and there are times when I can’t stand words any more.
Sometimes I need to see and not to say.
Revelation is a favorite theme of my study, when I’m seeing. What did it feel like—what did it look like—how was it for that person when the truth of God finally penetrated in?
For example, consider Caravaggio’s The Penitent Magdalen (1595).
Mary Magdalen is the woman of bad repute who came into the house of the Pharisee, where she knew Jesus was dining there. She stood behind Jesus, weeping. Her tears wet His feet. Then she knelt and dried His feet with her hair while kissing them, before anointing them with an ointment she had brought with her in an alabaster flask.
As described by Luke (see 8:36-40), this scene glows with humility, repentance, and submission.
Christ shocks his pharisaical host and others at the table by saying to Mary that her sins are forgiven, and explaining to them that “she [has] loved much.” To Mary, Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
It is this moment, which Caravaggio captures in his painting, when Jesus speaks to the woman and forgives her sins. It is the moment of revelation.
Grace has come to Mary, and her life has changed. Darkness and sin hold her captive no longer. She will follow Jesus. In fact she is with Him at the Crucifixion, and she is the first woman to whom He revealed Himself in His resurrected state from the tomb.
These are not small fulfillments for a woman who has come down to us by tradition as a prostitute and, today among Catholics and some others, is accorded to be a saint.
Among Renaissance masters, Caravaggio recreates religious moments as sacred drama by staging them with ordinary figures in ordinary poses, vivid contrasts of light, rich textural colors, and a taste for simplicity over the idealized.
Who is this woman who has been told that she is forgiven, that she may—finally—go in peace? If tradition is correct about her profession, she has allowed herself to be open to anyone who would pay for her rich clothing and for her adornments, even for the alabaster flask from which she draws the ointment for Christ’s feet.
At this moment when she has been told her sins are forgiven, she has stripped off her gold and her jewels and has flung them to the ground.
Yet her pose in this painting is still, not active.
We see her from higher up, as though she has somehow become small. We conclude that she has subsided from that tight moment of tossing the hateful baubles away. She is now still.
What we stare at is the dramatic line of flesh from her ear down to her shoulder. It is colored ordinarily, like plain skin, not made up with alluring coloration and probably fragrant powders. Against the darkness behind her, that dramatic line is seen by us as though lit from above by a glow perhaps from heaven. It makes visceral sense to us that her face has dropped exhausted toward her breast.
Her hands seem to clasp her belly, as a woman does who claps her pregnancy, and as another biblical Mary, Jesus’ mother, is often pictured, clasping Him.
Two women—one used and abused and spangled with shining stones, just now relieved of sin. The other—virginal—who was the vessel by which the Savior of the world came into the world, in human form, and forgave not only the other woman but us all.
I would stay all day with Caravaggio for he keeps me awake.
I roared the highways of Maine and New Hampshire, calling on lawyers, selling, making a go at a life. I was a Jew. However, there was this also in my mind, as I hurtled along, not a Psalm but a plea: Dear Lord, I don’t know what to do. Be not so hard. I am lonely and weary and sad.
And this too: Guilt has worn me down these years; yes, guilt has kept me small.
There must be some point.
Isn’t it amazing—sometimes I’d think, pausing between product demos—isn’t it amazing that there is something instead of nothing?
I might be pulled over on some high place for a moment, and I’d notice how the peaks and the valleys fade into a distance farther away than I could see. Why is it all there? I’d wonder.
It should have been so much easier, shouldn’t it, for there to have been nothing, nothing …nothing at all?
During one such still time, at my age of fifty-nine, on one such mountaintop, after avoiding the question for years and years, and after I’d begun to realize that I can’t fix everything all by myself, here’s what entered my mind--
Who is this Jesus guy after all, and how did He get that way?
This Jesus, now…here’s what I wondered …This Jesus, now: might He be a last-resort be-friender?
I needed such a one.
My car has AC, and stereo, and a big trunk full of brochures. But it’s rough labor, day after day, propelling that contraption and lugging a bag, as you other salesmen will know. Why do we do it? Do we do it just because the road’s there, and the car’s there, and the customers are out there?
Is that all the explanation there is?
Torah teaches us no, there’s more…there’s God’s Covenant by which we chosen people shall live. There are the 613 requirements by which we honor God—His rules of the road, so to speak—His Mitzvoth.
There is Torah itself, at least figuratively by many Jews considered the actual words written, through Moses, by God Himself. But here’s what I thought as I jounced along: God impressed Moses, up there on Mount Sinai, but Moses knew us, and—I think—this is what Moses must have said to God. “Okay,” Moses must have said to God, “I’ll tell them, but they’re not going to like it.”
He was right.
We don’t like it, we Jews. Fractious, we rarely stick to our obligation. “Yes, but…” is what we say. Mostly, we give God a nod, a wink, and a nudge, and we drive on down the road. “I’ll get back to you about that tomorrow,” we call back over our shoulder.
Of course, God holds to His part of the bargain. He exalts us or punishes us according to His formula.
Still, when you consider the level of our insubordination and disdain, it’s amazing that God took the trouble to promise us something even greater than the Noah Covenant or the Mount Sinai Covenant for our future. Read around in Isaiah or Daniel; if you have eyes to see, you’ll see.
By my age of fifty-nine, I had tried every which way my pride and stubbornness could conceive to control everything about my life. None of it had worked.
I was professionally successful, but my relationships suffered for it, first my relationship with God, and second my relationships with everyone else I loved…including myself. So there I was, pulled aside in my mountain-top rest area. I stared ahead into the long, long view. I could imagine another forty years stumping along, as urgent as the last forty years had been.
What was the goal? What was the point?
My father lived to 101, bless his soul, and my grandmother to 102. Mine may be a long, long slog.
So... what about this guy Jesus?
Even a Jew must admit that He’s made quite a name for Himself. He’s made his mother proud. Turns out—I didn’t fully understand this until afterward—He’s made his Father proud, too.
But who is He? That’s the question even the Jews ask. Then they turn away from the issue and conclude that the Covenant of the forefathers is quite enough for them, thank you very much. We’ll trouble ourselves with Jesus, they say--if we are ever going to trouble ourselves with Jesus—later on.
It’s been this way since Jesus appeared in the first place.
People have been up on mountaintops wondering whether they are sufficiently compelled finally to consider something new.
Take a risk, people. That’s what I did.
And it worked.
I have a friend who is a Gideon. I admire his willingness to follow the Great Commission: to get out there and to tell people about Jesus’ saving message.
Now and then, he would come by our house and recount his adventure that day. His adventure was to stand in front of the local government-supported establishment of incomplete learning and to pass out testaments to high schoolers.
Now and then the police would be called to come by. The principal of the establishment of incomplete learning would come outside and stand beside the policeman.
“See where I’m standing?” my friend would say. “Sidewalk.”
“He’s on the sidewalk,” the policeman would say to the principal. “Public property, not the school’s.”
“But he can’t just hand these…things, these books, to students.”
“Why not?” the policeman would ask.
“Well—but he can’t.”
“Actually he can.”
“So how many did you hand out?” I might ask, back at our house.
“Eighteen. One guy took one and then threw it on the dirt and stamped on it and rubbed it into the ground with his foot. So—seventeen that might be read.”
“Takes courage. I admire you.”
“It’s not me. It’s He.”
So, finally, a day came when I was ready to give evangelism a try—but not the Gideon way; I was too shy for that!
Speaking up for the faith is a requirement of any follower of Christ. If you’ve never tried it, I can assure you that I was scared, too. On the other hand, if you put your heart into it, sometimes it works out better than you expect.
God provides the opportunities.
Already, I had been astonished by the number of times in my sales meetings with lawyers when—without the slightest encouragement from me—the conversation turned on Christian matters. I thought, even as a Jew there must be something about my manner that is making this happen. Then I realized that it is God’s manner on display, not mine.
There was the fast-talking criminal defense attorney who began our sales call by stating, in exasperation, “Dikkon, I’m going to give it all up and go to seminary.” After discovering that I had myself been graduated from seminary, he ended the call, asking plaintively, “But they still believe, don’t they, your classmates? Even if they’re not working in the church. They still believe, don’t they?”
There was the woman divorce attorney who was herself divorcing and asked me, out of the blue, if I happened to know of a good church for her. As it happened, I did….
There was the Christian attorney who would often buy little things from me, a book or two here and there, just to keep me turning up, but who began each legal sales meeting with her most urgently felt Christian question, “Dikkon, but what are you reading right now?”
There was the estate attorney who, for some reason, at the end of our call, after he had bought a large electronic legal library, hazarded a “God bless you.” I laughed and God-blessed-him right back. Our eyes met, evaluating.
“Maybe. Yes. We’re close,” I said. “Technically, we’re still Jews. But, yes, I think we’re almost there.”
“Sit back down,” he said. “Tell me all about it.”
And then there was the one Jewish friend I absolutely needed to speak with, most terribly urgently. He was my principal Jewish mentor. He had tutored our children. I was Godfather to his youngest son.
I’d not yet had a protracted time to speak, to explain…this Christian thing was happening to us way, way too fast.
So one day, flying to Phoenix, I arrived at the airport, and who should be flying out at that same time…my Jewish friend. Fun to run into him at the airport’s bookstore. But he was going to Seattle.
Turned out—to Seattle by way of Phoenix!
Now, my Phoenix flight is almost always over-sold, and we passengers are packed in like peas in a pod. No changing seats; no sprawling out. Yet, for some reason, that day--
our plane was nearly empty!
(Pure coincidence, of course: no other reason for it.)
So my most vitally important Jewish friend with whom I had not had a moment to discuss this astonishing Christian thing and I had four-and-a-half hours to sit together and to get Christianity all talked out.
Does He ever!