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Today's Gospel in Art - Why are you doing something forbidden on the sabbath day?

The Mass of St Giles, by The Master of St Giles ©National Gallery, London

The Mass of St Giles, by The Master of St Giles ©National Gallery, London

Source: Christian Art

Gospel of 4th September 2021 - Luke 6:1-5

One sabbath Jesus happened to be taking a walk through the cornfields, and his disciples were picking ears of corn, rubbing them in their hands and eating them. Some of the Pharisees said, 'Why are you doing something that is forbidden on the sabbath day?' Jesus answered them, 'So you have not read what David did when he and his followers were hungry how he went into the house of God, took the loaves of offering and ate them and gave them to his followers, loaves which only the priests are allowed to eat?' And he said to them, 'The Son of Man is master of the sabbath.'

Reflection on the Painting

Jesus didn't come to do away with the Law, but He came to bring people back to the original intent of the Law. The original Law comes from Exodus 20, a law commanded by God. It is the third of the Ten Commandments: "Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day." Jesus wants to refocus people's minds to the origin of the Law and do away with subsequent man-made complexities around it. He wants to go back to the essence of the Law and why the laws came into being.

Jesus' teaching that 'the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath' (Mark 2:27) means that good works, when the needs of others demand them, can be part of the day of rest. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us how to observe the Lord's Day, which includes attending Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation (see CCC 2168-2195). On these days, we may not work or do activities that 'hinder the worship due to God', but 'performance of the works of mercy, and appropriate relaxation in a spirit of joy' are permitted. And therein lies the essence: it is a day of obligation yes, but above all a joyful celebration.

A panel which depicts a Sunday Mass beautifully is this Franco-Flemish painting, circa 1500. We see Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, kneeling beside an altar at which Saint Giles is saying Mass. In the top left corner we see an angel looking down at the altar. In fact the painting depicts one of the legends of Saint Giles, a popular French saint. Charlemagne had committed a sin so awful he did not want to confess it. Saint Giles celebrated Mass for the Emperor and prayed for him. An angel then appeared bearing a letter explaining that because of the intercession of St Giles's prayer, the sin of Charlemagne was forgiven (the Latin wording on the letter reads: 'By the merit of Saint Giles, remission of sins is granted to Charles').

Note: There's a chance to see Patrick van der Vorst next week when he will be giving a talk on 'Catholicism, Beauty and Art' at Holy Apostles Parish, Winchester Street, Pimlico, London SW1V 4LY - on Wednesday, 8 September at 7.15pm, Admission Free. All welcome.


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