All Saints Wimbledon

22 June 2003 Corpus Christi


Perfect Likeness


Hands up those who have ever visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery!

If you havenít, itís well worth a visit. Last Friday we went to see the exhibition of paintings by John Piper. The Galleryís just off the South Circular, about twenty minutes by car away from here, and besides occasional Exhibitions (like the Piper), although itís quite small, it has a magnificent permanent collection of pictures by artists as different as Rembrandt, Rubens, Hobbema, Murillo, Reynolds, Lawrence and many others.

Today is the Feast of Corpus Christi when we give thanks to God for the hope of glory and the means of grace, especially the grace which comes to us through the Sacrament of the Lordís Supper, the Eucharist, the Mass or whatever you prefer to call it, which we are in the process of celebrating here and now.

There is a close resemblance between whatís going on now in All Saints, Wimbledon, and the process of an artist painting a picture, especially when heís painting a portrait of someone. There are plenty of examples of such portraits in Dulwich Gallery, so if what I am saying inspires you to go and look at them for yourself, so much the better.

An artist starts with raw materials: canvas or paper, paint, charcoal, gouache or whatever. Ideally he needs some sort of framework upon which to work, say an easel Ė because itís difficult to paint with one hand whilst having to hold on to the canvas or sketchbook with the other. Difficult Ė though not impossible: at a pinch the framework can be dispensed with.

Using his skills he combines these materials to produce something quite different, not only in appearance but also in its very nature and, most remarkably in the value with which his skills invest it. In other words he produces a portrait.

Now although that portrait still has some of the characteristics of its components Ė it still has the attributes of paint and canvas, Ė nobody for one moment supposes that the value of that painting will bear any relation to the cost of the materials which have gone into it. To all intents and purposes, so far as its value is concerned, we might as well disregard them.

In this Sacrament God the Son, in a perfect liaison with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, takes bread and wine and turns them into something completely different. By a process which we can barely understand they become Himself. Like the artist he is taking matter of little worth (bread and wine) and miraculously transforming them into his Body and Blood.

Like the artist with is paint and canvas, the materials he uses cease to count for what they were, and become instead his chosen means of giving himself to his faithful people.

Ideally, of course, this is done within the framework of the local Church, that is the company of Godís chosen people assembled together for this purpose; but thatís only the easel so to speak, which he uses to prop up his canvas. At a pinch God can work perfectly well without either a church-building or a congregation Ė as he always does of course at the bedside of anyone who is too aged or infirm to get to Mass on Sunday. But thatís the exception, not the rule, so letís stick with the norm and think about an artist whoís painted a self-portrait using an easel intending it to be put on display.

Now just listen to what people say when they go to Dulwich Picture Gallery. Seeing a particular portrait on the wall and say "Isnít that Sarah Siddons, the actress?" or "Thatís Edward Alleyn who founded the College of Godís Gift in Dulwich" or "I rather think thatís Titus van Rijn, Rembrandtís son"

Do you see what they are unconsciously doing? They are identifying the portrait with the person whom it portrays. Then, perhaps, when they go on to say "Thatís a Rembrandt, isnít it?" or "That Velazquez must be worth a fortune" they are, again without realising it, identifying the artist with the artefact.

Now when it comes to participating in the Eucharist, because we are dealing with Heavenly-things, it shouldnít come as too much of a surprise to find that God can achieve a great deal more in his artistís workshop, the Church, than any earthly artist is able to, even the most talented ones.

For God can use the picture he has painted of himself in this Sacrament of Bread and Wine in such a way as to transform into Himself those of us who "by faith with thanksgiving feed on him in our hearts". In other words we, his Church on Earth, are enabled to become part of his working materials. As St Paul says in II Corinthians we shall "all grow brighter and brighter as we are turned into the image we reflect Ė that is Jesus Christ: Christ who is, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews "the perfect copy of [Godís] nature".

So far from being mere spectators, viewing at a distance the Great Artist busy on his work in his studio, we, as His Church, can not only act as the easel (which supports his painting in this neighbourhood whilst heís working on it) but also become incorporated into the painting itself.

The Eucharist is Godís way of drawing aside the veil which lies between us and him to reveal an entirely new dimension, a Fourth Dimension if you like, called the Sacred, the Holy, the Numinous or the Supernatural. If we will allow Him to do so, God will transform us, by incorporation, from what we are by nature Ė mere human beings Henry, Gladys, Peter and Tracey Ė into something we could never, by nature, have become Ė images of Christ, who Himself is the Perfect Image of His Heavenly Father.

Of course thereís a catch to it: the catch lies in those words "if we allow him". God will never transform anybody or anything that doesnít want to be transformed. Unlike paint and canvas, which have got to do pretty much what the artist makes them do, you and I are free to remain just what we are by nature namely, rather inferior-quality paint and canvas.

The question we have to ask ourselves is whether we want to go on being boring old paint and canvas, worth practically nothing; or would we, on the contrary, prefer to be transformed in Godís hands into part of a priceless work of art, together with Angels, Archangels all the Saints and the whole company of heaven?

One thing is certain: we canít have it both ways!

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