Beloved: I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. (2 Tim 4:6-7)
It is quite fortuitous (and fortunate) that just as we received last week the final instruction in our adult education series on St. Paul by examining his 2nd Letter to Timothy, we read from this same letter this Sunday at Holy Mass. It is also fitting to read from this letter just before Advent which is the opening of a new liturgical year. For us, Paul’s anticipation of his own death in this letter to Timothy feels like the closing of the apostolic age and the ushering in of a new but challenging age since with Jesus ascended and the apostles gone, all who come after them who have never met Jesus must move forward with Jesus through a life of unseen grace. This is the age we still live in today, a time in which we must put on hope and offer witness to Christ because we are those who remain; those who “have not seen but have believed”. (Jn 20:29).
In our quotation above taken from today’s second reading, Paul is writing to Timothy to inform him that he is prepared to make a final sacrifice of his life in imitation of Christ. Paul is like Ulysses, that fateful Greek mariner in the poem of the same name by Alfred Lord Tennyson, who speaks the words, “I will drink life to the lees”. Ulysses will not waste even the last drop of wine from his bottle. Similarly, Paul’s earthly life is now finally flowing out from him. He will pour out the last drop on an altar of sacrifice for the Lord. His “departure is at hand”. He wants to give all that he has left to God; for Paul has “competed well”, “finished the race”, and “kept the faith” through trials and tribulations so as to win the crown of victory.
Now we thought of using as an image of Paul’s spiritual accomplishment a painting depicting Pheidippides – that famed Greek runner who ran from Marathon to Athens only to collapse in death upon announcing victory. However no such work would have done metaphorical justice to Paul’s race. Hence we place on our bulletin cover for this 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time a work by the Spanish master Diego Velzquez, simply entitled, St. Paul (1620). Velazquez painted in the Tenebrist style. Yet even though St. Paul is one of his earlier works, Velazquez anticipates the broader brushstrokes of his later period.
Velazquez accomplishes a scene of St. Paul sitting on a bench, perhaps in his own prison cell awaiting his sentence of death: reflective and stoic, but possibly sad, not for his own demise but for the many souls he has labored and worried over. He holds in his hands as his last possession a single portfolio symbolic of all the writings to his flock which when read show that he is not antagonistic toward state authority; only solicitous for God’s authority. He holds these works as he intends to present these to the Lord, his judge, as proof of the good works he has done on earth, while “in the body” (2 Cor 5:10).
-Steve Guillotte, Director of Pastoral Services