|The Archpriest of St. Mary Major, H.E. Santos Cardinal Abril y Castelló, carrying the basilica's relic of the True Cross in the Stational Procession of Ember Wednesday.|
In the Christian perspective, Jonah is unique and uniquely important among the prophets for two reasons. First, he personally does not say anything about Christ, as, for example, Isaiah says that a Virgin shall conceive and bear a Son. In Jonah’s case, it is what happens to his body that prophesies the destiny of Jesus’s body, His death and Resurrection. Secondly, this prophetic explanation of his story is given to us by Christ Himself. He therefore became at a very early period one of the most frequently represented subjects in Christian art.
In the ancient paintings and sarcophagi from the catacombs of Rome and elsewhere, Jonah is almost invariably shown nude, whether he is depicted being thrown into the water, swallowed by the whale, vomited out by the whale, or lying down under the vine that God uses to shield him from the sun. His nudity emphasizes the reality of his human nature, and therefore emphasizes the reality of Christ’s human nature. It must be born in mind that early heretics like the Docetists, Gnostics, and later the Arians, were concerned to deny not so much the divinity of Christ as the humanity of God. In antiquity, the idea of a savior, sage or miracle-worker sent from heaven was not particularly difficult to accept; what many in the Roman world found much harder to believe was that God took such interest in the welfare of the human race that He actually joined it. The nude figure of Jonah, therefore, is as much an assertion of the Incarnation, against the early heresies, as it is a proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ.
At the end of the same Gospel, the Mother of God Herself appears in person: “And one said unto him, ‘Behold thy mother and thy brethren stand without, seeking thee.’ But He answering… said: ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brethren?’ And stretching forth His hand towards His disciples, He said: Behold my mother and my brethren. For whosoever shall do the will of my Father, that is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother.’ ” These words are explained by St. Gregory the Great to mean that the disciples of Christ are His brethren when they believe in Him, and His Mother when they preach Him; “For as it were, one gives birth to the Lord when he brings Him into the heart of his listener, and becomes His Mother by preaching Him, if through his voice the love of God is begotten in the mind of his neighbor.” (Homily 3 on the Gospels).
|The Coronation of the Virgin, apsidal mosaic of St. Mary Major by Jacopo Torriti, 1296|
The Synoptic Gospels tell the story of another paralytic healed at Capharnaum, whose friends had to take the roof off the building to lower him down into the place where Jesus was preaching. (Mark 2, 1-12 and parallels) When Christ says to him first “Son, thy sins are forgiven thee.” the Pharisees grew indignant at this usurpation of God’s prerogatives. He therefore heals the man of his bodily infirmities to show that “the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins,” and then addresses him in the same terms He uses with the man at the pool of Bethesda, “Arise, take up thy bed, and go into thy house.”
The healed paralytic carrying his bed is another motif of great importance in early Christian art, representing the forgiveness of sins, an article of the faith which we still profess in every recitation of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Such images usually consist only of Christ and the man carrying his bed, and it is impossible to say whether we are meant to see him as the paralytic of Capharnaum or Bethesda. More likely, we are meant to think of them both at once.
The latter, however, represents another idea of great importance to the early Church, namely, that gentiles are not obliged to live according to the religious laws of the Jews. In the early centuries, many Christians still felt themselves to be very close to their Jewish roots, and continued to follow the Mosaic law; a small but apparently rather vocal minority of these held that the same law should be binding upon all Christians. The paralytic of Bethesda, however, when reproved for violating the strict interpretation of law that no work may be done on the Sabbath, replies “He that made me whole said to me, ‘Take up thy bed, and walk’ ”. He therefore symbolizes the fact that Christ Himself has given the Church a new law, by which Christians are freed from the observance of the law of Moses.
The same idea is expressed by another common motif in early Christian art, the scene referred to as the Traditio Legis – the Handing-Down of the Law. In these images, Jesus is shown with a scroll representing the new law of the Christian faith, in the company of at least the Apostle Peter, usually also Paul, and sometimes all twelve; very often, He is passing the scroll directly to them. The Apostles, who had of course discussed this same question at the very first Council of the Church, that of Jerusalem (Acts 15), hand down to the Church and its members the new law that permanently dispenses us from the religious observances of the Old Covenant. This is certainly one of the reason why the story of the paralytic of Bethesda is read in the basilica of the Twelve Apostles.
The three witnesses of the Transfiguration, Ss. Peter, James and John, often appear together in the Gospels as the disciples closest to Christ. Along with Peter’s brother St. Andrew, they were the first disciples called to follow Him, and were present for the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4, 38-39); they were also the witnesses of the healing of the daughter of Jairus, (Mark 5, 37) and the agony in the garden (Mark 14, 33). They alone receive new names from Christ as a sign of their mission, (Mark 3, 16-17) Peter, “the Rock”, being the name given to Simon, James and John receiving the name Boanerges, “sons of thunder”. But at the Transfiguration, as in so many other places, it is Peter alone whose words the Evangelists record for us, words which the church of Rome sings this days at his very tomb, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”