In Caravaggio’s painting, Christ is gazing at Matthew, then a tax collector from Capernaum. Like Zacchaeus of Jericho, Matthew is despised by his community for collecting taxes for the Roman occupiers and pocketing the money of the poor for his own use. Have you noticed how many outcasts Christ chose to encounter? Within months of this encounter, Matthew is an apostle, witnessing Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension.
This painting reminds me of what we are reading in my School of Community. The other night friends gathered at my house to read and reflect on excerpts of “Living is the Memory of Me,” a late-summer assembly in Italy, about the “instant before that afterwards defines me in action.” The example is a boy who sees the beautiful silhouette of a girl across the street. “There is an instant, before he dashes off in pursuit, in which he says ‘how beautiful,’ ” Fr. Julian Carrón says.
Fr.Carrón then reflects on the instant before Zacchaeus comes down from the sycamore tree to run home. In that instant before, Zacchaeus changes because he considers Christ’s gaze upon him.
Here, in Caravaggio’s masterpiece, is the instant before Matthew follows: Christ gazes at him and reaches out to him. He uses the same gesture depicted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, when God reaches his hand out to awaken Adam, the first human.
How do our lives change when we begin to understand we exist because of the gaze of Christ? How do our hearts convert when we realize Christ is present? When he was 23 years old Fr. Luigi Guissiani wrote to a friend describing this loving gaze: “An infinite love, enormous, which bent down to my nothingness, drew out a human being, generated me, as a speck of dust in its body, limitless in its eager openness to truth and love.”
Caravaggio understood this; he also understood that some of us never will allow ourselves to bask in this loving gaze. Notice the two men on the left side of the painting who continue to work without ceasing, unaware of Christ’s presence. I pray we all can turn to His loving gaze and say “How beautiful.”