Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Peter, Judas, and an Apocryphal Story about Da Vinci's "Last Supper" (Reflections for Tuesday of Holy Week, John 13:21-33, 36-38)

There’s a story that when Leonardo Da Vinci was painting the “Last Supper” in Milan, he went around looking for models to use for the thirteen figures that he would include in the painting. Each one had to have a particular face that expressed Da Vinci’s vision of the particular man he would represent. It took him forever to find just the right face for each character.

One Sunday as he left the cathedral for mass, he saw a man whom he thought would be the perfect model for the face of Jesus on his “Last Supper”. The man had the features of kindness, tenderness, caring, innocence, and compassion on his face. And so Da Vinci invited him to sit as the model for Jesus.

Years went by, and the painting still wasn’t complete. This time Da Vinci was having a hard time finding the right face for Judas. He was looking for a man whose face was streaked with despair, wickedness, greed, and sin. Da Vinci decided to visit the Milan prison in search of a model for his Judas. There he found him and got the authorities’ consent to let the prisoner model for Judas.

Da Vinci worked tirelessly for days. But as the work went on he noticed certain things changing in the prisoner. His face seemed more filled with tension, and his bloodshot eyes filled with horror as he saw his face slowly being painted on the canvass.

One day, Da Vinci, felt so sorry for the man that he stopped painting and asked him, “What seems to be troubling you so much?”

The man buried his face in his hands and began crying. After a long time, he raised his head and said to Da Vinci, “Sir, do you not remember me? Ten years ago, I sat in this very same room. I was your model for Jesus”.

This miserable man had turned his back on Christ and turned his life over to sin and the world sucked him down to its lowest levels of degradation. He no longer loved the things he loved before. And those things that he at one time hated and despised, he now loved.

Where once there was love, now there way misery and hate; where once there was hope now there was despair; where once thee was light, now there was darkness. The young man had forsaken goodness and had therefore brought his life crashing down. He brought punishment upon himself.

Today’s gospel reading juxtaposes, but also brings into stark contrast two very important persons in the life of Jesus, two men who belonged to his inner circle of friends: Peter who was to become the leader of his band of apostles, and Judas, a man whom Jesus trusted enough to make him the ‘treasurer’ of the group. Judas of course eventually betrays Jesus. But Peter’s offense would be no less serious; he will after all, deny knowing his friend and master—not once, but three times.

Both men shall sin, both shall fall short and fail to live up to the demands of loyalty and friendship. But whereas Peter repents and recognizes the immensity and boundlessness of Christ’s forgiveness, compassion, and understanding, Judas will know only despair and hopelessness, because his vision can see no farther than the pain and suffering his betrayal will cause the one person he has loved and committed to giving his life.

Sin disfigures us; there is no denying that. It can damage the bond of friendship between ourselves and a God who cares deeply for us. And yet, as St. Paul tells us: “Where sin abounds, grace abounds even more”. (Rom. 5:2)

This was something Judas forgot, but Peter remembered. Perhaps it was Peter’s many offenses against Jesus—a number of which the New Testament records—that reminded him of this truth. Perhaps it was the numerous times when Jesus had to correct him, the many occasions when his quick tongue and slow wit offended his master and friend—that made Peter remember Jesus’ kindness and limitless compassion, most especially for the weak and fallen.


He was after all, most certainly there when Jesus saved the woman about to be stoned for committing adultery. He was most certainly there on those many occasions when Jesus spoke those words every repentant sinner seeks to hear: “Your sins are forgiven; go and sin no more”.

Our God is a loving, merciful, and patient God who is willing to wait for us to turn away from our sins, and is always ready to give a repentant sinner a second chance. Lent is a time we are asked to turn away from sin and recover our original blessedness, as Peter did. God is patient and is willing to wait. But let us not make him wait too long. We should not wish to disfigure ourselves irredeemably, like Judas, or like Da Vinci’s young man.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)