Tacit Preachers

Michael Metzger

Penitence is one of the aims of Advent. Here’s why it’s a foreign idea to many of us.

Earlier this year, my wife Kathy and I attended Mass at a Catholic Church. During the homily, the priests mentioned penance. I recognized it’s a foreign idea to me. I get that the term penance is rooted in the idea of being repentant, or contrite. I was more wondering why I’d never heard about penance growing up in a Protestant tradition.

We see plenty of penance in scripture. Look at King David. He disobeyed God in taking a census of the people. But he repented. He did penance by erecting an altar to the Lord on threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. However, when Araunah offered David the oxen, threshing sledges, and wood for the burnt offering, David kindly refused. “But I will certainly buy it from you for a price; for I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.” What a beautiful depiction of penance.

As is the woman (believed to be Mary Magdelene) who washed Christ’s feet with her tears.  In his Homily 33 on the Gospels, Pope Gregory declared, “Whenever I ponder the penitential spirit of Mary Magdalene, I feel more like weeping than speaking.”

Penitence was discarded in 1517 when Luther attacked the sacraments that have been integral to the Church since the first century. He vehemently rejected the idea of Penance as administered by the clergy. Luther’s followers, then the Protestant Reformers, published numerous pamphlets attacking the Church. Adding to the confusion was an erratically educated Catholic clergy, often unable to respond to these attacks.

Fortunately, the Church didn’t respond—at least in terms of fighting fire with fire (i.e., words with words). She opted for beauty. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI declared that “art and the saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith.” A movement was launched to transform painters into “tacit preachers,” wrote Gabriele Paleotti, archbishop of Bologna. The term tacit means wordless. Tacit preachers sought to move viewers in deeper ways than mere argument. Art provided a way to draw people together instead of tearing them apart.

It’s proven effective. Over the last 500 years, untold millions have flocked to Italy and toured the great cathedrals. Many have felt moved, including my wife Kathy and me. Without understanding a word of Italian (or Latin), we’ve felt drawn to the beauty of the art and architecture. I’ve often heard viewers say there’s a presence there that’s inexpressible.

One image that evokes deep emotions is St. Peter Penitent by Guido Remi. It no longer hangs in a church but is in the public domain, so we can view it. Remi illuminates Peter’s bared chest, directing the eye to linger on the exposed flesh as Peter opens his heart. His hand, splayed across his skin, reminds us of how Peter denied Christ three times. The painting evokes the penitential gestures that parishioners do in the Mass, reciting “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” (“through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”). The beauty of this penitential act draws us to deeper penitence.

“Beauty will save the world.” So wrote Fyodor Dostoevsky. The beauty of penitence draws us into a deeper experience of Advent, a season of penitence and preparation. If you find this idea attractive, go online and sit before the wondrously beautiful artwork that depicts the sacramental faith. It’s the product of painters transformed into tacit preachers.


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  1. Mike, it is interesting to observe. The Jesus of Nazareth began his public ministry by calling the people to repentance. He said, “ repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”(Matt 4:17), Then, near the conclusion of his time with the the Apostle John, on the Island of Patmos, Jesus says, “Those whom I love I rebuke and disciplines, therefore be zealous and repent”(Rev 3:19).

    Jesus’s call to repentance is clearly more than tacit and I wonder if that’s not a call the church today should be proclaiming loud and clear?

    Just a thought.


  2. I am thankful for the continued thoughtful work of Mike and the Clapham Institute. I needed the reminder of how God uses beauty and art as tacit preachers. Hopefully, I can use it to make me a better typical preacher.

    Hopeful,Peaceful Advent and Merry Christmas all!

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