Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the 17th century, it was a spiritual practice among both Roman Catholics and Protestants in the Netherlands to purchase religious prints or ‘Andachtsbild’ for meditation and contemplation. The Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn adapted several of his famous religious works into prints for this purpose. Interestingly Rembrandt himself was not raised in the church. His mother was a Roman Catholic, and his father belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church, so in order to avoid family conflict, he chose particular scenes that were common and appreciated by both confessions. The care with which he reworked and altered the images, however, suggests that he developed a deep religious insight into the mystery of Christ and the love of God. The painting on this evening’s cover is one I know very well. On every visit to St. Petersburg, Russia over the past 15 years, I would make my pilgrimage to the Hermitage Museum to study the 14 Rembrandt painting there including the Return of the Prodigal Son and Jesus Descent form the Cross.
As in most of Rembrandts’ works, light plays an important visual role. In the Descent from the Cross there are three pools of light, but only one apparent source- a lamp being held close to Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea as they lower Jesus from the cross. The three pools of light are illuminating are Jesus and the men lifting him, the women to the left who are laying out what appears to be a burial cloth, and Mary and her followers to the right in their mourning. This strategic lighting seems to create a sort of order to the work, shedding light on what has happened, what will happen next, and the effect it has on others.
By depicting the image of Christ with such raw naturalism rather than an idealized and elegant form, Rembrandt offers a portrait of the self-giving of Christ that seems much more real. It is almost as if he has embodied the great Christ hymn in the Letter to the Philippians, “Christ Jesus, has emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” It is powerful message of the gospel for this Good Friday. Salvation was achieved for all humanity, not by a beautiful process but by Jesus’ intensity of commitment and love. In spite of the pain, Christ was willing to go through such suffering on behalf of the world, and yes, for you and me.
Artistically, however, I believe that Rembrandt was also attempting to proclaim the wonder of Christ as the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome. Jesus is ultimately the true light that allows us to see and to make sense of our own past, our present and our future. That is an important word in times of doubt. So many people today find it difficult to trust the God’s promise and purpose beyond this life. Fearfully, they regard death as the final word. There are some critics of the faith who believe that the Christian way is too simplistic and naïve. Why would you place your hope and trust in a dying savior? Rembrandt doesn’t agree. He wants us to look beyond the dark shadows of life and see the promise of light everlasting emanating from Christ’s death. While Jesus’ face remains in the shadows, the brilliance radiating from his body, illuminates those who follow him, offering a sign that his sacrifice will bring about something new and amazing. He is the true light that came into the world, the light no darkness can overcome- not even death. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.