SimeonThe 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.

prodigalIn 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.

selfportraitDuring 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.

A little thought for Easter 1: a more real kind of reality

We may tend to think of material, physical reality as the most ‘real’ form of reality there is. If we were to see someone walk through a solid wall or a locked door, we, like the disciples, might assume that the person was somehow insubstantial, less ‘real’ than the physical barrier they just passed through.  But what if the reason why the risen Christ can walk through walls is not because he is insubstantial, but because his risen form is so real, so substantial, that the wall is insubstantial in comparison?  In today’s gospel the disciples see in the person of Jesus just a glimpse of that greater reality.  May we too, be granted such glimpses, and find in them the confidence to follow in the steps of Thomas and the others and proclaim the good news of the resurrection.

A brief thought for early on Easter Day

The resurrection happened in secret, the actual moment hidden in the dark hours of early morning. But for each of Jesus’ friends and followers there was a special moment when the resurrection became real for them, when life came out of death for them, when the stone was rolled away from the tomb of their own doubt and fear and confusion.

For Mary, that moment comes when the risen Christ, mistaken for the gardener in the half-light of dawn, speaks her name and she recognises him for who he is. At baptism, God calls each of us by name, allowing us to recognise God at work in us and around us in the world, and giving us access to the light and love of the resurrection.
Over the last almost two thousand years there have been many moments of resurrection, many moments when individuals and whole peoples have been freed from the tyranny of sin (of their own sin, or the sins of others that have oppressed them).  The resurrection is therefore not only a past event, but an eternal moment of rebirth, hope, light and life, which still transforms the dark places of this world.