God, Second Chances and 'The Pieta'

The restoration of the badly damaged statue, 'The Pieta' by Michelangelo, symbolizes how God's grace offers us second chances.

Some years ago, on Pentecost Sunday, a very disturbed man by the name of Lazlo Toth walked into St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and, armed with a steel hammer and raging vengeance, delivered fifteen blows to the upper portions of Michelangelo’s magnificent statue, the Pieta. “Sono il Christo!” he shouted – “ I am the Christ” – as he all but laid waste to a treasure that was the embodiment of beauty itself.

Over the ensuing years, long after a team of craftsmen had painstakingly restored her to her former elegance, a friend of mine, an art historian, made the observation that while it was good to have her back, she was not the same. Not only did she bear the scars – though barely perceptible – she now bore a different history. As he put it, “now, her history is not only of magnificence but of madness,” and with it, the lingering thought that beauty is as fragile as evil is persistent.

The story of the Pieta’s birth, death and restoration has a fabled quality to it; a sort of Aesop on a dark day. Everything seems to be representative – if in extreme – of some piece of the human condition. If Michelangelo is symbolically the divine expression of our goodness, Toth is, symbolically, the depths to which we are capable of sinking. The unnamed craftsmen who tend to her, who bind her wounds, symbolize our desire to mend our destructive ways. The time that was given over to that repair is the time of exile, when we are separated from the divine form. And those who come back to see her again, scars and all, remind us that for all our imperfections we are still seekers of the good.

It is our pattern I think, to live in this tension defined at one end by our highest aspirations and at the other by our lowest inclinations. We all have a little Michelangelo in us, as well as a little Toth, and on most days and in most instances we fall somewhere between the two. We aspire to the good; we make our fitful strides toward it, however bold or timid. Sometimes we even touch it, and then we slide back, slip and fall over our own indolence or indifference. We settle into a status quo.

But God does not settle, God summons. This is what I call the God of second chances; the one who, despite our persistent failings, calls us back to those higher aspirations. Remember that ancient Israel was dispersed into exile as a ransom for their sins, but even there they returned to their faith in a God of second chances who subsequently returned to his faith in them. Peter denied Christ three times but still became the cornerstone of the early church, and Paul was a persecutor of that church but went on to become its greatest advocate. There are a lot of prodigal sons and daughters among us, people who leave, return, and perhaps even leave again, but are always welcomed back by the God of second and third and fourth chances. In the words of Gandhi, “we are drops in the limitless ocean of God’s mercy.”

We need God’s mercy because so much of the time we are prodigals; wanderers in exile somewhere between good and evil, looking to draw closer to the God who offers the second chance but easily distracted, discouraged, or enticed away.

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Rev. Erik Kolbell
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