“This Jesus, far from saving the world, might struggle to save himself a seat on a crosstown bus.” (Jason Farago in the New York Times, 15 Nov. 2017, on the auction of Leonardo daVinci’s Salvator Mundi, at auction for $450 million.)
Two men board a crosstown bus at the same place and sit down in seats across from each other. Each man is carrying something important to him. One man has a wooden crate, carefully screwed shut, with a sort of canvas handle that has been fashioned and attached to the crate so he can carry it like a suitcase. The other man has a canvas tote bag that cradles a plastic bucket with a lid covering it tightly. The bucket could hold, maybe 2-3 gallons of liquid, it’s not as large as a five gallon bucket. It’s contents are sloshing around a little.
As the bus makes its journey, more people board, and it fills up, but not uncomfortably so. Eventually a third man takes up a place standing in between the other two men who are seated on either side of the aisle. Not much distinguishes this third man, who draws no attention to himself, but he is the only person on the bus who is standing.
As the bus travels, without warning there is an enormous flash of light - like an explosion with neither sound nor impact. It is like the most brilliant flash of lighting you have ever seen, but the sound of thunder never follows. The passengers are momentarily blinded by the light, and shocked for a moment. They cannot tell if the bus has stopped moving or is still going. They can no longer see anything out the windows but a pale blue/whitish glow. They think they have the sensation of motion, but they cannot tell: is the bus hurtling forward, propelled by some blast? Or are they dropping into an endless abyss that has swallowed them up? Or are they standing still.
No one is sick to his stomach. No one has been flung from her seat. There is no cry of anguish or alarm - there was no time, no warning, and strangely it seems as though there is nothing to worry about. You would say that the noise was deafening, except that there was no noise, and although there is no sound, everyone is quite certain that they can hear everything there is to hear around them. Everyone is still, without being frozen in place. It is this impossibly odd combination of the simultaneous sensation of tremendous velocity and complete stillness. And there is the light.
And it’s impossible to say whether time seems to have slowed down, or sped up, or stood still. Clearly time is not passing at the same rate as it had when each person stepped onto the bus. Something has happened. No one can hear his own heartbeat, or her own breathing. None of them seems to be breathing, none has a pulse. Maybe they are trapped here in the time between two breaths, between two heartbeats? But there is the light and the motion and the stillness.
Then there is a sound like a tremendous rush of wind that becomes more like the beating of powerful wings, or helicopter blades. And now the passengers on the bus have the sensation that they are floating gently down, and they feel as though the bus is being set down someplace. And once they stop, the sound of the wings or the helicopter blades fades up and away. The light outside seems to intensify for a moment, and then with a flash it begins to subside to a bearable glare, and a gentle blue sky fills in to soften the glare. And as they look out the windows, they can see that they have been set down in a broad green meadow which stretches as far as the horizon in every direction.
The man with the wooden crate notices that his crate is still there by his feet, just where he set it. Like everyone on the bus, he is deeply confused; he has no idea what has just happened or where he is. The man with the plastic bucket also does not know where he is or what has just happened. He checks his bucket carefully to see that the contents of it have not spilled. He often seals the lid shut with duct tape when he takes the crosstown bus to prevent leakage of any kind, which would not be good. But on this occasion he had been running late and had not taken the time to do so. But no worries, the contents of the bucket are still safely inside.
Everyone is still sitting calmly, almost motionlessly in his or her seat. Some are listening for a heartbeat or a breath. They are wondering now, am I dead or alive? They find themselves wondering whether they should be afraid, and some begin to suspect that indeed they should be.
Only one person moves with confidence, or as though he is not suspended in some in-between state of animation: the man who was standing between the seats. He has remained standing the entire time. Before the flash of light, he seemed entirely unremarkable, but now he seems uniquely to have some control of himself, some command of his surroundings, some knowledge of what is going on. He begins to move.
As he moves, the entire environment around them all begins to shift, like a changing scene in a movie or on a stage, except that the people all stay in place. The walls of the bus disappear, and the passengers find that they are all seated in comfortable velvet chairs, arranged on two sides of an aisle, like on a bus, or in a church. They are all seated in the meadow, which extends as far as the eye can see. There is no sun in the sky, but all is light above the pale blue sky and beyond.
The standing man is now at the head of the aisle, and the passengers, still not sure what is happening, see now that they sit in two groups: one on the right and one on the left. The driver of the bus appears, and he brings for the standing man a golden throne, which the driver places at the head of the aisle, raised on a little platform. The throne is glorious, and the man who was standing now takes his seat on it, as the driver seems to float away into the sky with the sound of quietly beating wings or helicopter blades. And the face of the mysterious man seated on the throne becomes visible to the passengers. He is rather wan, and his hair is long, falling over his shoulders in long, curled, golden tresses. He begins to speak:
“My children, your time has come. Your bodies and your souls have finished their earthly journeys. The details of what happened to you are unimportant right now; all will be revealed in time.
“I am the Son of the Living God. I was sent to be your Savior, to be the Savior of the world, and there is no one who is or ever was beyond my grasp, if only you would come when I called you. Many’s the person who could not hear me call, or who would not. Many’s the person who refused to do what was so obviously right. Many’s the person who indulged his own deepest desires, and thought precious little of those in need. Still, I was sent to all, to everyone. In the life you lived, the choosing was to be done by you, not by me.
“But here we are on the journey toward the life that awaits beyond the grave. You have heard that I would come to separate the sheep from the goats, and that the righteous would be rewarded with eternal life, but the unrighteous with eternal punishment.”
At this short speech, the group of those who sit at the left hand of the throne (that is, on the right, as you face the throne), being not entirely unfamiliar with Scriptures, began to shift nervously in their seats. All except the man with the wooden crate, over whom an apparently inexplicable calm had fallen.
Seeing the quiet assurance of the man with the wooden crate, the Son of Man asks him to rise. Then he says from the throne, “My child, you have a look of assurance on your face, while all your neighbors at my left hand, knowing, as they do, something of the Scriptures, have begun to suspect, as they examine their lives perhaps for the first time, that my judgment of them may be hard. What is the source of your quiet assurance? Could it be the treasure you carry in that crate?”
“Indeed,” says the man, “it is.”
“Please, then, open it.”
With a quiet smile, the man pulls a screwdriver from his pocket. He gently lays the crate on its back, and carefully unscrews the face, lifting it from the crate. Inside, a second layer of protective material has to be removed, and when it is, the man reaches inside and from the crate and lifts out a painting. Everyone knows as soon as they see it that it is a very famous painting, by the hand of Leonardo da Vinci, and that it had sold at auction for the staggering sum of nearly a half a billion dollars. And when he lifts the painting up, everyone is even more stunned to see that the face depicted in the painting was the very face of the Man who sits on the throne, with his strange expression, and his golden curls. And they can see that the Man even holds in his hand a crystal orb, like the one in the painting, although at the moment his other hand (his right) is not raised in blessing. And he even wears a blue robe of the same lapis lazuli of the robe in the painting, with golden embroidery on it.
Everyone is stunned. And the man who had just unpacked this treasure takes a deep bow as he stands before the throne, and says, “My Lord, I paid the sum of $450 million to possess this image of your own face, never knowing what a likeness it truly was. From my store of great wealth, I used a goodly portion to take possession of this extraordinary painting. Surely my reward will be great for this act of homage to you, the Savior of the World.”
Calmly, the Son of Man responds, “We shall see.”
Then he turns to his right, and looks at the man with the bucket that he was carrying inside a canvas tote bag. “My child,” he says, “you seem nervous and uncertain. You have barely been able or willing to lift your eyes to look at this painting, let alone to look me in the face, as though you are frightened of what might befall you in my Presence. What is the source of your anxiety? Could it be whatever you carry in that bucket, that you are so afraid might spill?”
The man with the bucket could barely lift his face to look upon the Son of Man, let alone provide an answer to the question. He only mumbles and averts his eyes. So, from the throne the Son of Man speaks again, “Please, open it.”
Nervously, the man kneels down and takes the bucket out of the tote bag. His fingers fumble as he loosened the lid all around its perimeter. Gently he pries the lid off the bucket, and as he does, the familiar scent of chicken soup fills the air around them all. And there is a little giggle of nervous laughter from some who sit watching, when they realize what is in this man’s bucket. But they do not know what the Son of Man knows.
He speaks, “This man was carrying soup, as he does every week, to feed to those who are hungry. Sometimes he takes it to a prison. Sometimes he ladles it out to strangers. Sometimes he visits the sick with his bucket of soup and his ladle. Sometimes he brings clothes to those who have not enough to keep them warm. And always he is careful not to spill a drop. This bucket of soup cost him less than $20 to make.” And turning to the man, he looks down and says, “My child, do not be afraid to look upon my face. Lift up thine eyes, and behold.”
Suddenly the sound of loudly flapping wings or of helicopter blades fills the air, and the sky above them all is filled with sparkling color as varied as the spectrum: with wings, and eyes, and wheels. And above the sound of the flapping and the rotors, a hymn can be heard being sung by heavenly voices.
And the Son of Man turns to the man with his bucket of soup, and to all those gathered with him at his right hand and said to them, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Matt. 25:34)
And the angels of mercy swoop in on those to the right and carry them away to the nearer Presence of the Lord. And the angels of death swoop in on those to the left and carry them away to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
“And for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” (Ephesians 1:15-18)
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
26 November 2017
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia