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.