The first time I saw a reproduction of Rembrandt’s portrayal of Simeon with the Christ child (the late one, not the earlier one) it immediately became my favourite painting. It has all the fuzziness and limited palette associated with the artist’s late works, as well as all of the spiritual and emotional depth – it is the work of an artist for whom physical sight and the detail of appearance has taken second place to the ability see with the eyes of his heart and soul.
In this painting, just as in his portrayal of the Return of the Prodigal Son (also a late work, and also featuring what could almost be the same model for the figure of the old man), he is depicting someone who, like the artist himself, is also seeing with the eyes of the soul. When you look at Simeon’s face, you know, somehow, that he is blind, and yet it is he who sees the baby Jesus for who he really is. When you look on the prodigal’s father, you know that he is seeing not the wreck that the young man has become, but the son he truly is, and will be again.
During his last years, Rembrandt returned several times to the project of painting self portraits. I often wonder whether in these two biblical old men he was somehow portraying himself, and whether, in all of these paintings, the self-portraits included, he was, in a way, learning to see himself with the eyes of the heart, and the soul, learning to see himself not in terms of his physical appearance, but in terms of who he truly was. Was he portraying, again and again, his true self, as he felt he was looked upon by God? And was he, then, in a very real sense, preparing for his own death?
Simeon sees Jesus and immediately prays, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’. Perhaps the reconciliation of the family is the last act of the prodigal’s father? In these last paintings, I see a man who has been through a great deal, and made many mistakes, and at the end of his life has learned to see himself for who he is.
Perhaps all this is a bit fanciful – one can never know the mind of an artist, and one of the great joys of art is that we can each look on it and see something different, something that reflects our own experience, our own questions, hopes, dreams or fears. But it was something of this that I had in my mind when I wrote, in my hymn for the Feast of Candlemas, “We come just as we are to you, as one who knows us through and through, and keeps us in your care, in love beyond compare.”
Simeon saw Jesus and recognised him, and at that moment, as Jesus gazed back with the intensity that only a baby can offer, he saw himself as God saw him: beloved. May we learn to do the same.
Who really matters?
I can’t believe I’m actually going to write a blog post about someone else’s blog post about someone else’s article. It’s just daft. But it’s only short, so here we go:
This morning my facebook feed presented me with this piece, slating (in a nice way) the even more bizarre list produced by Tatler, of “People Who Really Matter”.
My first thought was simply that a list of people who really matter would be an unranked list of about seven billion names, and that it would be quite a task to produce it and keep updating as new little humans are born.
My second thought was that the list would just get longer and longer, as people don’t stop mattering just because they die.
My third thought came at some point in the third paragraph of the blog post, when I realised that the problem with the list was framed around the fact that number one on it was a baby. It’s princess Charlotte, by the way.
My fourth thought was that, while the baby princess is ranked #1 because she is a princess, it is actually wonderful, rather than silly, that a baby is considered someone who “really matters”. Charlotte is a delight, and the light of her parents’ lives, I have no doubt, but really she hasn’t done anything much yet – most of her major life achievements are still ahead of her. She matters (in real life, that is, not in Tatler) because she exists, because she is beloved of God just as we all are.
If a person cannot “really matter” from the moment they exist, then we are left with the conclusion that our significance is dependant on things we learn to do only later in our lives, if at all, or worse still, on our contribution to the economy, and so on. So, Tatler, while I am baffled by your bizarre and strangely pointless ranking of people’s significance, I applaud you for placing a young child first, and reminding us that we are significant simply because we exist, for to exist is to be beloved of God.
Prayers for a baby at their baptism
Praying at Christenings – two ideas to involve the family and friends.
Christenings – whether they are in the main church services or separately – always involve a time of prayer for the child, and for their parents and godparents. Many people aren’t sure what sort of thing should be included in a prayer, especially if they don’t pray regularly themselves, but one thing that everyone has in common when they come to a christening is that they are part of a gathering in which there is a huge amount of goodwill focused on one person: the child who is being christened. There is often talk of christening being the start of a journey, so people will also be thinking about the future, and the potential of the child in their midst – the kind of person they will grow up to be, the kind of world they will grow up living in, and the life they will lead.
Here are two ways to harness this goodwill and these hopes, fears, and dreams, into prayer that can be part of the christening service itself, and have a lasting and wider impact afterwards.
A Parents’ Prayer
When you visit the family, don’t be afraid to talk about prayer – try and make connections between the promise to pray that they will make in the service and the hopes and dreams and thanksgivings and fears that all new (and not-so-new) parents have when they think about their children. Invite the parents to work together to come up with either a fully-worked out prayer, or some key words or phrases that you can help them fashion into a prayer.
These prompts may be helpful:
When I think about…. [name of child]
I am thankful for……..
I hope for………..
I worry about………
I desire more than anything…………
Also ask the parents to send you a photo of their child. Once the prayer is finalised, use it, together with the photograph, the name of the child, and the date and place of the baptism, make it look attractive, and put it in a frame (about A6 size works well) so that you can present it to them on the day. Many families will keep this as a treasured possession, display it in their home, and even ask for more copies to send to godparents and grandparents.
- If you save it as a jpeg and email it to the parents they can share it on social media.
- You could also use it on a baptism anniversary card
- How about printing out enough copies on paper (without the frame!) for the family and friends who have come to the christening?
- If you get a chance to meet the godparents in advance of the service, you could invite them to write a prayer too.
- You can use prayers written by parents or godparents in the christening itself – they may wish to read them out, or they may prefer the vicar to do it!
A Friends’ Prayer
At a christening there may be dozens of others, not just godparents, but wider family, friends and neighbours, who all have one thing in common: they have come to church to celebrate the life of a child, to be part of something, and to wish that child well. This goodwill and presence is an immense gift. How can it be ‘harnessed’ and enfolded prayerfully both in the service and beyond?
Here are a couple of ways you could enable all those who come to a christening to be involved, to contribute their own prayers and hopes:
- stick a post-it note onto each order of service, and leave pencils in the pews, and invite people (at some point in the service) to write just one word on their post it note, expressing their prayer or hope for the child being baptised. You can ask them to leave their post-it note on the service sheet, and peel them off after the service, or you could gather them in at some point during the liturgy. If your church is well resourced you might even be able to afford ‘posh’ post-it notes (a nice colour, an interesting and appropriate shape etc).
- Have a graffiti board as people come in (or as they go out, or both) inviting one-word hopes and prayers.
You may get multiple copies of ‘peace’ ‘love’ ‘friends’ ‘happiness’ ‘laughter’ etc, and that’s ok. People don’t have to write something different from everyone else, they should be encouraged to write whatever feels most important. They can write several contributions if they like – but each should be one word long.
However you collect the words, it’s what you do with them after the service that makes this into something beautiful. Go to www.tagxedo.com or a similar site and type in the words (include each word as many times as it was contributed – if 25 people all wrote ‘love’ then type it in 25 times!), then simply click to create a beautiful piece of word-art that is a prayer for the child written collectively by the whole gathering on the day. On most tag-cloud creation sites you can configure colours, shapes, fonts etc.
- If you save it as a jpeg, you can email it to the family and invite them to share it on social media or email it round to their friends who came on the day.
- The illustration above is just a sample – when creating this for a real child, you could also type in their name (multiple times) so that it is featured in the finished piece of word art, to make it even more personal.
- Again, you could keep the jpeg and send it to the family for the anniversary of the baptism, and encourage them to share it on social media.
- The tag clouds don’t include photos, so an album of them could be kept in church without anyone having to worry about the child protection issues around keeping or displaying photographs of children.
Because these ideas involve computers and websites, it may be that you know a teenager who would like to make them for you, as their ministry…. They may have more ideas about how to create something beautiful as a lasting and net-share-able gift for those who come to church for baptism.