Michelangelo Merisi, known to the world as Caravaggio, was a celebrated painter of his generation. He lived in the late 16th century and completed some 40 masterpiece paintings during his young and troubled life. He would exert considerable influence on an entire generation of artists who followed in the new Baroque style.
Caravaggio painted Gospel scenes with his characteristic use of light and shadow, a painting technique called “chiaroscuro,” or tenebrism. He bathed his subjects in bright shafts of warm, golden light set against backgrounds of deep shadowy darkness.
Through sharp contrast of light and darkness the master Baroque painter evoked the spiritual drama of interior conversion at the heart of the Gospel and of every Christian life. His masterpiece, “The Calling of St. Matthew,” shows Jesus radiating divine light as he calls the tax collector to be his disciple.
And his dramatic painting of the conversion of St. Paul, whose feast the church celebrated Jan. 25, shows the young, murderous Saul on the road to Damascus. A beam of golden light radiates around Saul at the dramatic moment when he is thrown to the ground while his horse and frightened companion fade into a curtain of deep velvet darkness.
The theme of light and darkness has permeated the Scripture readings from the beginning of Advent through the Christmas season. This Sunday the image of divine light that overcomes the world’s darkness shines into Ordinary Time. This biblical theme keeps before our eyes the Incarnation celebrated at Christmas and Epiphany, that great mystery of faith by which we strive to live each ordinary day.
“Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness: for there is no gloom where but now there was distress. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone,” says Isaiah in the first reading.
Then the psalmist’s hymn of faith in God illumines the path of trust we must walk on our daily journeys of faith as we pray, “the Lord is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear?”
And in the Gospel, Jesus leaves Nazareth to begin his public ministry of calling disciples to himself through his message of repentance and hope in God’s kingdom. Jesus’ move to the region of Zebulun and Naphtali is understood by Matthew as fulfilling Isaiah’s promise that, “the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.”
Jesus is the divine light that dispels the darkness of the world. Jesus’ love is a healing light that shines into every human experience, even those overshadowed by failure, weakness and the darkness of sin.