One of the destinations during my recent pilgrimage to Italy was the great city of Florence. Florence is one of the world’s cultural gems and the home of the powerful Medici family for hundreds of years. Even today, it is still one of the premier places to see fine art, eat good food, and buy the best clothing and jewelry. One of its most famous sons was the incredible Michelangelo Buonarroti and some of his best work is displayed in the Florence Academia of fine arts. One of the many artistic gifts Michelangelo had was the ability to visualize his sculptures within a block of marble. For him, creating a masterpiece was just releasing the figure trapped within. There are a handful of unfinished statues in the museum and you can almost feel the figures struggling to escape their stone prison. Just down the hallway is his renowned sculpture of King David as a young man. This 17 foot, 11,000 pound image of the great Jewish king took two years to craft and is amazing to behold. The features are unbelievably lifelike, with muscles, veins, and other details so finely carved you begin to forget he was working with stone and not something soft like clay. Even 500 years later, this great statue holds your attention and impresses from every angle.
The seemingly supernatural vision of Michelangelo to look at a piece of stone and see a masterpiece within is just a hint of God’s ability as he looks at us. Today’s readings tell us stories of God seeing something in people that everyone else misses. The ignored and dismissed become the glorified as they are handpicked by the divine artist and their lives sculpted into something great.
In the first reading, the Lord sends the prophet Samuel to anoint the next King of Israel. He heads over the house of Jesse, as the Lord directs him, and gets out his flask of oil. The oldest son walks over and Samuel thinks to himself, well, this will be easy, here is the next king. But God cautions him not to judge by appearance but to wait for the Lord to look into the heart. The eldest son is dismissed and the next one follows, one after the other until seven sons pass by Samuel, yet none are chosen. Finally, the baby, the Fr. Boehm of the bunch, the most unlikely to be the next king, strolls in, and immediately (we can almost hear the excitement in God’s voice) the Lord tells Samuel to anoint him so the Holy Spirit can rush down upon him from that day forward. We know how this story played out; God worked on David over the course of his life and he became a magnificent king, an unstoppable warrior, a holy ruler who brought peace, prosperity and holiness to the Chosen people. God saw something great in this simple shepherd boy and drew it out, little by little, like the Divine Artist he is.
Something similar is at work in gospel. Jesus is passing by a man born blind and the prevailing wisdom at the time suggested that his affliction was due to some sin committed by him or his parents. Once again, God sees into the heart and knows there is something special in this man. His physical blindness does not mean he is spiritually corrupt. To walk past him, to assume his blindness is because of sin would be to ignore a masterpiece in the making, a figure who is stuck in stone, trying to escape the prison of suffering and rejection. Jesus knows this man’s true potential and heals his blindness. Not only that, but once he regains his sight, he becomes a teacher to the religious authorities who thought they had nothing to learn. The irony is that the person who once was blind ends up seeing who Jesus really is: the Savior and Lord. Meanwhile, the Pharisees remain completely blind in their hearts and only see Jesus as an enemy and imposter.
Far too often, our fallen human nature judges other people and writes them off. Even though it is impossible for any of us to look into a person’s heart, we often draw damaging, hurtful conclusions from someone’s decisions, actions, words, income, or status in society and perpetuate the blindness displayed in the gospel. This is one of the wounds of Original Sin.
Thankfully, not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.” When Jesus looks at you and me and every person who has ever lived, he does not see a failure, a weakling, or a disappointment. He envisions a potential masterpiece; as Catholics, we also call them saints, friends of God. Most of the time, we see far less potential in ourselves than God does. Our hopes and plans for ourselves and the people we love will always fall short of what God wants to do for us. His dream for us is always so much more refined, rewarding, and joyful than we would ever dare imagine.
As the Divine Artist, Jesus wants the artistic freedom to sculpt us according to what he sees hidden behind the block of sin, weakness, and fear. He won’t come at us with a jackhammer or a stick of dynamite; he waits for our permission. If we let him, he will work on us like Michelangelo did on his sculptures, personally, lovingly, one little chisel mark at a time until all the rough edges are smoothed out and every little detail is highlighted for all to marvel at. The degree we have faith and allow God to sculpt us will be the extent of our glory and happiness in the life to come. The more we cooperate with his grace, the quicker the process. The more we fight and resist, the longer and more painful it will be. Because he is so kind and merciful, as long as we die in the state of grace, Jesus will continue to perfect us after death in purgatory so we can eventually live with him in heaven.
Let us thank God for taking such a personal interest in each and every one of us. Let’s pray to be healed of our spiritual blindness that causes us to judge others and write them off. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for that Divine Gift of seeing the masterpiece within each and every human person, to appreciate the potential greatness and holiness of everyone we encounter, no matter how hidden or trapped it might be!