Where Is Jesus Staying? Come and See

Caravaggio’s Jesus calling Peter and Andrew is the Jesus calling me and you.

Caravaggio, “The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew,” 1603/1606
Caravaggio, “The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew,” 1603/1606 (photo: Public Domain)

The official liturgical season of “Christmas” is intense but short. We are already back in Ordinary Time (until the beginning of Lent on Feb. 17). Last Sunday’s Gospel, recounting the Baptism of Jesus, augured the shift from the Gospels of Jesus’ Infancy to the beginning of his three year public ministry. Our Sunday readings are a little out-of-kilter, because in all three Synoptic Gospels Jesus’ fasting and temptation in the wilderness precedes the launch of his public ministry. We’ll return to the temptation in the desert on the First Sunday of Lent.

Christmastide used to extend culturally beyond the roughly three weeks the Church now calls “Christmas.” Back then, what we now call “Ordinary Time” was titled “Sundays after Epiphany.” The whole period until Lent was popularly called “Carnival” and was an opportunity for people, whose winter workloads (especially in agrarian societies) were lighter, to enjoy themselves and party ahead of the penitential season of Lent. A world that jettisons Christmas trees right after Christmas doesn’t immediately grasp that once upon a time some Catholics even left their trees up until Feb. 2 — Candlemas — Jesus’s Presentation in the Temple. As a Polish American kid, Christmastime extended throughout January as families waited for the priest to come for kolędy, a blessing of homes that included a chalked inscription written above the door (“20 K + M + B + 21”) designating the year, the initials of the Three Kings, and the cross. (It was also a great pastoral device to touch base with all one’s parishioners at least annually, recall those who may have lapsed, and see the real conditions one’s people were living in.)

But the Church this week moves us immediately towards Jesus’ Public Ministry and the call of his disciples. In that sense, the Church’s focus is ours: every year, at the beginning of the year, we are again called to be his disciples. Jesus is no “itinerant preacher” who spread a message and that’s it. It’s not that “we wanted the Gospel and got the Church.” Yes, Jesus did intend to found a Church. He clearly preaches a message which gathers people around him, but he also clearly at the start intends for that work of making disciples — evangelization — to be institutionalized. That is why the call of the Apostles is explicit. 

The Gospels speak of Jesus preaching and of people reacting to him in various ways. Some seem to hear to his message, as opposed to just listening to it (Mark 1:27). Some seem to attach themselves for some benefit like healing (Mark 1:33-34). Some rejected him with a “who do you think you are?” (Luke 4:28-30). It’s like the fates of the seed sown by the sower (Matthew 13:1-23). But, in the midst of those diverse reactions, the Gospels are clear about Jesus selecting a particular band of disciples that, in addition to hearing him, would also be called institutionally to continue his work. They are the Apostles. (This is also why we call the bishops “successors of the Apostles.”) 

The Gospels all focus first on the calling of certain, select Apostles: the brothers Andrew and Peter and the brothers James and John. 

John’s Sunday Gospel this week presents Andrew as the one who leads his brother to Christ (1:41). Mark’s Gospel (which is the Gospel primarily read this year and which will be featured next week) speaks of Jesus encountering “Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said …” (Mark 1:16-18) and they did.

One possible depiction of the Johannine call of Andrew and Peter was the work of the “Italian” artist (fully aware that this term is anachronistic, because there will be no “Italy” until 1870): Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). 

Caravaggio spent much of his career in Rome. Being in Rome helped him avoid a Neapolitan death sentence for murder. His extravagant and ribald life style forced him to paint for the money. Fortunately for him, Rome was in the middle of an ecclesiastical building spree where the demand for sacred art was high. Coupled with Caravaggio’s artistic originality, painting usually managed to keep him a step ahead of the debt collector. 

Caravaggio belongs to Baroque painting which, in contrast to Renaissance painting, emphasized contrast: if Renaissance painting was about balance and harmony, the Baroque about heightened contrast. One of the original elements in Caravaggio’s painting is his use of light and darkness, especially shadow. Chiaroscuro is a painting technique that strongly contrasts light and darkness. Caravaggio carried it to an extreme: his “tenebrism” not only contrasts light and darkness but tends to make the darkness dominant. As one commentator suggests, tenebrism in painting does what a spotlight does on stage: highlight what we should pay attention to.

In Caravaggio’s “Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew,” the three key figures — from left to right Peter, Andrew and Jesus — emerge from the shadows, their clearest features being their faces. As the British Royal Collection Trust commentary notes, there is a clear generation gap between Jesus and the two brothers: Jesus unusually is not bearded. Jesus is slightly ahead of Andrew and Peter, looking back at them, almost like this Gospel where Jesus “turns around” to John’s disciples following him (v. 38). His left hand points forward, a gesture visually suggesting Jesus’ open-ended invitation in this Gospel for the prospective followers to “come and see” (v. 39). That is in keeping with the primacy of grace, for it is not the disciple who chooses Christ but Christ the disciple (John 15:16), whose response itself is the Spirit’s work (see 1 Corinthians 12:3). 

At the same time, the one called is free. While inviting the prospective Apostles to “come and see,” Jesus is also on his way, almost alluding to the remark in Luke’s Gospel when the Hidden Christ seems ready to part with the disciples at Emmaus, seeming to “continue on as if he was going farther” (24:28). Jesus is going on farther, eventually to Jerusalem and Calvary, a road from which Peter first tried to dissuade him (Mark 8:33). Jesus is not dissuaded, even if he might have to lose Peter in the meantime; readiness to follow him, bearing one’s cross along the road of suffering is prerequisite to “anyone who wants to come after me” (Mark 8:34). Like the rich young man invited to divest himself of his possessions, Jesus leaves the door open to “come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). Roman Brandstaetter, the Polish Jewish poet, has a moving poem, “The Confession of a Man Who Didn’t Follow the Lord,” in which that rich young man looks back on his life and considers how he answered Jesus’ invitation:

I chickened out
And went home.

Now, I’m an old man. My riches have doubled.
But I feel a tangible void inside myself,
A lack of fullness, a hopelessness
That I fear to reveal even to those closest to me.”

For as many times as Peter chickened out — as when asked to follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, when walking on the sea, or in the High Priest’s courtyard — at least this first time, he didn’t. He decided to follow that finger and “go and see.”

How often do we cut off the legs of something before it even begins?

Andrew seems to suggest the posture of those who stop something before it even gets started. He’s pointing back at himself, as if to ask, “Me? Do that?” Caravaggio’s Andrew is not the Johannine Andrew, whom we might imagine rushing up to his brother, Peter, with an enthusiasm: “Peter, Peter, Peter, listen! Guess what I found? You’ll never guess. C’mon! You’ve got to see Him!” 

But even if Caravaggio’s Andrew is not the Johannine Andrew, he’s probably very much Everyman’s (or at least Every Christian Man’s) Andrew. Faced with Jesus’ call, is at least a little afraid to “open wide the doors to Christ!” As the German Lutheran theologian Rudolf Otto reminds us, God is the Mysterium tremendum et fascinans — the Mystery that both terrifies and yet attracts us, makes us want to hide but yet fascinates us to “come and see.” The trick of Christian discipleship is choosing the latter.

One could make other observations about this painting, e.g., how Jesus and Peter lock eyes, how Peter’s aged hand reaches in the same direction as Jesus’ youthful one, how Peter brings along some fish. The youthful Jesus (he is at the beginning of his public ministry) is ever young, ever Life itself (John 14:6), who gives “joy to my youth” (Psalm 43:4). Jesus is in the lead (as he should be) but, given the dynamism Baroque painting prized, the painting also makes a spiritual point: there is no stopping, no “rest point” on the path of following Christ. Spiritual progress must always in this life move forward.

But the central point is that Caravaggio’s Jesus calling Peter and Andrew is the Jesus calling me, pointing the way to go and going on, inviting me to follow but leaving that choice to me. Andrew had, after all, already begun to scope out the path, following Jesus so that he “turned around” (John 1:38). It’s somewhat like our first love whom we admired from afar; when he or she actually turned around, were we brave enough to follow up that acknowledgement and invitation? Caravaggio’s Andrew (and Peter) are also me, being not afraid to take up that invitation and “come and see.” 

Dorota Grondelski, an art historian, contributed to this piece.