“And the Lord turned and looked at Peter… he went out and wept bitterly” (Lk 22:61-62). A simple look often carries much more power than words. After Peter’s third denial, Christ looks at Peter. Christ’s glance here was enough to break through Peter’s fearful heart. At that moment, Peter recognizes his brokenness and turns back to our Lord. This Gospel passage evokes wonder and awe at the power of a look, particularly the look of Christ. What are the implications of Christ’s gaze upon us?
The image of the Christ Child depicted above offers insight into this question. Blessed Fra Angelico painted this fresco of Our Lady, Christ, and several saints, in the hallway of his Dominican Convent of San Marco in Florence. One’s eyes are immediately drawn to the center, to the Christ Child. What distinguishes this fresco from so many paintings of Christ, is the Child’s eyes: His gaze is fixed on us, the bystanders.
In this image, His gaze pierces our hearts and speaks “I love you”. His full attention, of which we have so little in society today, touches the depths of our being. While we converse with another person, there is nothing more assuring than to have that person give us full attention by looking us in the eye while we talk. It reassures us of our dignity; it tells us that they care about us and what we have to say. Christ’s attention to us in this fresco emphasizes our dignity and importance; the only fitting reaction is a response of love. The heart is stirred to leave all behind and enter into His gaze.
The look of Christ echoes his words in the Gospel “Come to me all you who are burdened and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). The Child lifts his hand to give us his blessing, while holding the world in his other hand. We can rest, knowing that He is in control. However, not only does he offer consolation, but he also further challenges us to rise. His look is both comforting and demanding. He beckons us to follow. Pope Francis reminds us of this challenge as he states “He always looks at us with love. He asks us something, he forgives us and he gives us a mission” (Homily, May 22, 2015). Only the gaze of Christ can pierce the depths of our hearts so deeply as to call us forth on a mission.
After the bystander is drawn to Christ’s loving look, he will quickly notice that Christ is not alone. He rests in Our Lady’s lap; His throne is Mary. Her large blue cloak, a mantle of protection, encompasses him. The dark blue brings to mind a sea of love and mercy to which we are each invited. She places her hand on her chest as a sign of surrender and resignation to the child, to whom we also must yield. Furthermore, Christ confidently looks forward. He knows Mary is there, He does not need to look back at her to check- there is no doubt of her presence. He continues to stare forward, waiting for us. Similarly, we must always trust Mary’s guidance; we can be assured that her motherly protection is always guiding us. We can place ourselves in Mary’s lap too, in her mantle and rest in her embrace. Often we turn around and question her or even Christ’s presence, but she wants us to look forward, like the Child, and welcome others by our loving gaze.
Pope Francis further reflects as he compares Christ’s initial glance at the calling of Peter to be a disciple to the gaze at the time of Peter’s denial. “That gaze changed Peter’s heart more than the first did. The first changed his name and vocation, but the second was a gaze that changed his heart; it was a conversion to love” (Homily, May 22, 2015). Do we allow Christ’s gaze touch the depths of our heart and draw us to love?
Lastly, a wide range of individuals are depicted in this fresco: the evangelists(St. Mark, left, and St. John, right), St. Lawrence (martyr), Sts. Cosmas and Damien (physicians), St. Peter Martyr (religious and martyr), and St. Thomas Aquinas (religious, philosopher, and theologian). All are present with Christ, but even so the Child is not looking at any of these saints. Rather He looks upon us, the bystanders. He wants us to enter into the communion of his friends. We too belong in the picture. The image invites us; we are called into the communion of Christ’s love. During this week, let us enter into this invitation of Christ's gaze and enter into this communion of love.
(The image of "Madonna Della Ombres" can be found at the following website: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madonna_delle_Ombre)