Sacred Artists Must Be Empty Vessels

In this morning’s Gospel St. Luke is clear that Jesus is carefully listening to the argument that breaks out among His disciples as to who is the greatest among them. One translation has St. Luke saying, “He perceives the thoughts in their hearts.” 

It would be prudent to say that we are all psychologically and theologically hardwired to look for approval. King David wrote of this in the Psalms when he said:  “You have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with honor and glory.”  David recognized the fact that we are something special in the grand scheme of creation, but Jesus has come to set even the wisdom of King David straight. (Psalm 8 verse 5).

He tells His disciples,  “… for he who is the least among you – is the one who is great.” The disciples must have done a double take when He said this, for it went counter to their understanding of reality. But Jesus uses a child to demonstrate this truth; for  children in ancient times were socially at the bottom of the barrel, they had no rights, and basically were – if a family was lucky enough to have them – equivalent to  domestic staff and servants. Children were expected to be seen and not heard – the watchwords for them were humility, listening, and service. An honorable Jewish child of the first century AD would not be bold enough to assert any supposed rights, or demand anything of their parents. There was no self-seeking here, there was no expectation of a mandatory trophy given to raise self-esteem.

Jesus is telling His disciples to see in the child standing next to Him the model for their own behavior. For they, too, should view themselves as servants; as James would say in a later epistle “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6).  Jesus explains that we must eliminate from our life everything that blocks our spiritual progress – vanity, self-aggrandizement, power-grabs – and the greatest of all sins – pride. St. Paul tells us very clearly in the 2nd epistle to the Corinthians that the Lord wants us to be empty vessels so that He can fill us up with His love, grace, and power.

We cannot leave this day without mentioning two men who were “empty vessels” for the Lord. They were early martyrs of the Church – Sts. Cosmas and Damian – excellent models for all of us who aspire to be sacred artists. They met their death at the hands of the Emperor Diocletian in the late 3rd century BC.

The above two icons are of the twin brothers Saints Cosmas and Damian. The very top icon was done many centuries ago, and the icon right above these lines is a more contemporary interpretation.  Unfortunately I was not able to locate the names of the artists that “wrote” these two beautiful icons.

Sts. Cosmas and Damian are models for us because they were not interested in making a name for themselves (even though because of their medical skills they were known throughout the Eastern Roman Empire). They were not interested in making money in return for their remedies (they were called the “moneyless ones” since they did not accept money for their services).

The above image is by Fra Angelico. It is his interpretation of Saints Cosmas and Damian miraculously treating the emperor Justinian after he prayed for their help, three hundred years after their death. The leg was healed, and Justinian attributed it to his prayers for their intercession. The icon shows them practicing their skills, following through and using their knowledge (they studied at the famous medical centers in Arabia). As artists (for we can say “the art of medicine”) they confronted all illness head on and relieved suffering, not by just turning to past remedies, but willingly using their common sense and their ability to adapt remedies to new situations. They were “with-it” as the current parlance would say. Yet, they were novel in their approach since they were practical men who “emptied themselves of self,” had a deep love and faith in Jesus, while at the same time, doing all they could to increase their skills for the benefit of their fellow man.

Thus, they apply to our desire to be sacred artists by showing us that we must make the effort, as St. Paul says, to be empty vessels: to allow our own ego to be overwhelmed by the power of the Lord, to confidently go about the process of learning the art form(s) that we are called to concentrate on, keeping our sense of humor as to the rate of our improvement, steadily practicing the art, and prayerfully putting our trust in Jesus to help us be the best artists we can be.

Sts. Cosmas and Damian were committed Christians, and the early Church regarded them with great honor from the moment of their martyrdom. They truly are a symbol of what our Gospel speaks about this morning – for they made it their duty – especially in the manner of their deaths – to empty themselves – and be filled beyond measure with God’s gifts.

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

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