Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Carpenter's Calling

Too often this blog is a lament over tyranny. Tonight I would rather quote a beautiful passage from Giovanni Papini's Life of Christ. It may not be true on every point of doctrine, but in essence it speaks the truth about the nature of God's love and redemption towards sinful man:

Jesus [while growing up] did not go to school to the Scribes nor to the Greeks. But He did not lack for teachers. Three teachers He had, greater than all the learned: work, nature and the Book.

It must never be forgotten that Jesus was a working man and the adopted son of a working man: that He was born poor, among people who worked with their hands; before He gave out His gospel He earned his daily bread with the labor of His hands. Those hands which blest the simple-hearted, which cured the lepers, which gave light to the blind, which brought the dead to life, those hands which were pierced with nails upon the cross, were hands which had been bathed with the sweat of labor, hands which had known the numbness of work, hands which were callous with work, hands which had held the tools of work, which had driven nails into wood, the hands of a working man.

Before being a workman of the spirit, Jesus was a man who worked with material things. He was poor before He summoned the poor to His table, to the festival of His Kingdom. He was not born into a wealthy family, into the house of luxury on a bed covered with purple and fine linen. Descendant of kings, He lived in a woodworker's shop: Son of God, He was born in a stable. He did not belong to the caste of the great, to the aristocracy of warriors, to the circles of the rich, to the Sanhedrim of the priests. He was born into the lowest class of the people, the class which has below it only the vagabonds, the beggars, the fugitives, the slaves, the criminals, the prostitutes. When He became no longer a manual worker, He went down lower yet in the eyes of respectable folk, and sought His friends in the miserable huddle which is even below the common people. But until that day when Jesus, before going down into the Inferno of the dead, went down into the Inferno of the living, His position was that of a poor working man and nothing more, in the hierarchy of castes which eternally separates men.

Jesus' trade is one of the four oldest and most sacred of men's occupations. The trades of the peasant, the mason, the smith, the carpenter are, among the manual arts, those most impregnated with the life of man, the most innocent and the most religious. The warrior degenerates into a bandit, the sailor into a pirate, the merchant into an adventurer, but the peasant, the mason, the smith, the carpenter do not betray, cannot betray, do not become corrupt. They handle the most familiar materials, and their task is to transform them visibly into visible, solid, concrete creations, useful to all men. The peasant breaks the clod and takes from it the bread eaten by the saint in his grotto and the murderer in his prison. The mason squares the stone and builds up the house of the poor man, the house of the king, the house of God. The smith heats and fashions the iron to give a sword to the soldier, a plowshare to the peasant, a hammer to the carpenter. The carpenter saws and nails the wood to construct the door which protects the house from the thieves, to make the bed on which thieves and innocent people die.

These plain things, these common, ordinary, useful things, so usual, common and ordinary that they pass disregarded under our eyes used to more complicated marvels, are the simplest creations of man, but more miraculous and essential than any later inventions.

Jesus, the carpenter, lived in His youth in the midst of these things, made them with His hands, and for the first time by means of these things manufactured by Him, entered into communion with the daily life of men, with the most intimate and sacred life, home life. He made the table around which it is so sweet to sit in the evening with one's friends, even if one of them is a traitor; the bed whereon a man draws his first and last breath; the chest where the country wife keeps her poor clothes, her aprons, her handkerchiefs for festivals, and the starched white shirts for great days. He made the kneading trough where the flour is put, and the leaven raises it until it is ready for the oven; and the arm-chair where the old men sit around the fire of an evening to talk of never-returning youth.

Often while the thin, light shavings curled up under the steel of His plane and the sawdust rained down on the ground, Jesus must have thought of the promises of His Father, of the prophecies of old time, of what He was to create, not with boards and rules, but with spirit and truth.

His trade taught Him that to live means to transform dead and useless things into living and useful things: that the meanest material fashioned and shaped can become precious, friendly, useful to men: that the only way to bring salvation is to transform; and that just as a child's crib or a wife's bed can be made out of a log of olive wood, gnarled, knotty and earthy, so the filthy money-changer and the wretched prostitute can be transformed into true citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. *

Caveat: Papini's book contains grave theological errors (e.g., works salvation and, in some passages, a gnostic disdain for matter).

* Giovanni Papini, Life of Christ (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1923), pp. 34-37.

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