As Lent begins, a friar challenges us to examine the relationship between what we say and what we do. Who are we and how do we present ourselves to others? Are we authentic in the way we live our lives? Is the person we present to others who we truly are?
The Italian Baroque painter Giovani Francesco Barbieri – more commonly known by his nickname “Guercino,” or “squinter,” because he was cross-eyed – painted two paintings based on the parable of the prodigal son – one in 1619, the other in 1651. Why two paintings?
Two Different Versions of Same Scenes
In the 1619 painting, the emotional accompaniment of the meeting between father and son is subdued. The scene is there, but the painting offers little reason for tears. A third figure in the painting, a servant, performs the perfunctory duty of handing fresh clothes to the father to replace the scanty rags that the repentant son wears.
Contrarily, the 1651 painting is packed with emotion. Here, a richly clad father contrasts sharply with a son whose rags barely cover the pellucid skin hanging on his bony body. The younger figure in the painting, in addition to appearing humbly before a startled yet welcoming father, holds a cloth to his eyes to catch the repentant, shameful tears.
The obvious contrast between the two works portrays a deepening of the artist’s understanding and, therefore, intention, to express the truth of the parable’s meaning through a different medium. In the 1651 version, the father does not take clothes from the servant, but covers the shameful recalcitrant himself with his own garment, symbolizing in the embrace a return of unity, a restoration of love that one may presume never ceased, but only lingered during the separation.
It is possible that Guercino experienced a stronger attachment to the parable by reflecting on its purpose and, therefore, was able to portray in the paint a tighter understanding of the meeting’s emotional power.
Who We Are vs. How We Present Ourselves
The evangelist Mark reports that the crowds were attracted to Jesus because they were comforted and enlightened by his words, amazed at his cures, and astounded because he spoke with authority. He spoke as one independent of a source, as the author of what he preached. He believed and lived what he preached.
As Guercino’s 1651 Prodigal Son portrays a closer emotional union expressed in the Lukean parable, so too did Jesus’s preaching and living reveal an authenticity that his audience was unaccustomed to hearing. They expected to receive again vapid and repetitious explanations of the Mosaic Law preached by their local religious leaders. Jesus is not only author of the obvious paraenesis concealed in his parables, but of all of his preaching on the kingdom.
The relationship between our living (believing) and preaching (presenting) is always worth evaluating. We may ask ourselves: do we take authorship of the person that we present to others? Authorship of our beliefs? Of our living? Are the shingles we hang on our door who we are or who we want others to think we are?
Who am I and who do I present myself as being? Jesus was authentic in his being and in his preaching. Am I authentic in my living? Is the person I present myself as being truly who I am?
As Thomas Merton once said, “To be a saint means to be myself. Therefore, the problem of sanctity and salvation is, in fact, the problem of finding out who I am and discovering my true self.”
— Fr. Francis is parochial vicar of St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish in Hartford, Conn., where he is presenting a program called “Praying the Psalms During Lent.”
Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic – a holiday, current event, holy day, or other seasonal themes – are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional reflections by friars can be found on the Spiritual Resources page of HNP.org.
- “Reflection: A Time of Unselfish Fasting” – Feb. 7, 2018, HNP Today
- “Francis Soucy Uses Academic and Nursing Care Experience to Touch Lives” – Feb. 7, 2018, HNP Today
- “Chapter Focuses on Realignment, Being Who We Say We Are” – June 11, 2014, HNP Today