I must admit that I have never been a big fan of the work of art that graces the cover of this week’s issue. “Why, then, is it there?” you might ask. Well, for starters, America is not a totalitarian state. We’re not exactly a democracy either; still, it’s both charitable and prudent to pay a decent respect to the opinions of one’s colleagues, especially when they’re as smart as mine. And, truth be told, quite a few members of team America like the piece. I don’t see it, but I’m a bit old fashioned that way. My reaction to Dalí’s modern depiction of the Last Supper is something like the punch line to the joke about how many Irish mothers it takes to screw in a light bulb. The answer: What’s wrong with the old one?
Indeed. What’s wrong with the “old” Last Supper, the one that Leonardo da Vinci gave us, that triumph of light, color and form that has inspired countless artists, Christian and otherwise, long before Dan Brown “cracked” its “code”? The more or less straightforward answer, of course, is that there is nothing wrong with the old one; it’s a masterpiece. It’s just that it is neither the first nor the last word on the subject. Artists in nearly every century since the second have taken a crack at depicting that fateful, world-changing night in Jerusalem, a seminal event in the life of Jesus and the church.
That is as it should be. For “in his gracious goodness,” as the fathers at Vatican II put it, “God has seen to it that what he had revealed for the salvation of all nations would abide perpetually in its full integrity and be handed on to all generations.” In other words, every generation of Christians must make its own the timeless truths of the Scriptures and tradition. In that sense, the new evangelization that we’re hearing so much about is not really new at all; it is the work of the church in every age. As Archbishop Rino Fisichella points out in an article on America’s Web site (dated Oct. 15), the new evangelization invites Catholics, not to reinvent Christianity for a new century (a preposterous notion if there ever was one) but to “become missionaries so that the joy that has been communicated to them and that has transformed their lives may allow others, too, to encounter the same source of love and of salvation.”
Jesus Christ is that source of love and salvation. At the heart of our faith, then, is not an idea or a philosophy or even a theology, but a person. Our faith is not in a proposition but in the One who is the way, the truth and the life. The proclamation of the Gospel in any age is existentially unintelligible in the absence of such a personal dimension. It is also dangerous; Robert Ellsberg reminds us of just that in this week’s issue: The tragic story of some of the 16th century’s “new evangelists” reveals that when Christians confuse the what of faith for the who of faith, then we also tend to forget who we are as people of faith and, unfortunately, who our neighbor is.
When God ceases to be personal and is instead merely a thought or idea, then God is no longer a subject, but an object. As Pope Benedict has written, “the arrogance that would make God an object…is incapable of finding hi m. To think like that is to make oneself God. And to do that is to abase not only God, but the world and oneself too.”
The new evangelists—all of us—would do well to remember that. We would do well to remember that the most powerful form of evangelization is our account of the joy that is within us. We cannot fake that; and while it takes different forms at different times for different Christians, it ultimately comes from the same source, the same person. In a way, both da Vinci and Dalí got it right: Jesus is in the center of both pictures—exactly where he should be.