I am about to begin a study of Matthew’s narrative of the birth of Jesus, and decided to use one of my favourite paintings as an introduction. It is of course one of the most beautiful of all paintings, giving the contrast between the craggy, worn, masculine face of the Apostle with the youthful, intent, almost feminine face of the angel.
What is Rembrandt telling us?
The conventional answer is to refer to the Protestant theology of biblical inspiration, which would have been well-known to Rembrandt, namely, that all scripture is inspired by God. The role of the human authors of scriptural books is variously described by theologians, many depicting them as little more than recipients of divine dictation. Is that what we see here? The angel of God dictating the gospel to Matthew? Well, without doubt the angel is speaking or whispering in Matthew’s ear. But if essentially Matthew is only an ear, why bother to depict his upper body so characterfully? Rembrandt invents this gloriously experienced face, with its lines and wrinkles, its thoroughly decisive nose, its luxuriant hair, its firm mouth, its deep,inward-looking eyes. There is also the bunched fist that holds the pen, and the expessive hand that strokes the beard. He is not tall but solid in his flesh.
Rembrandt is telling the viewer that the corporeal humanity of this man is not irrelevant to the process of inspiration. Rembrandt endeavoured to give some sense of the racial and historical identity of his biblical figures. This is a Jewish man who has lived in this body for some sixty years, so that it bears the marks of his living. The climate, the region and the events of his life have shaped this bodily presence which moves us by its material reality. This is the way we are at our best, magnificent material facts that are not here for long.
Yet all that Matthew can tell us about Jesus, the one who is called Son of God, Saviour of humanity, also comes from this material being. He too is part of the experience which has marked this human face. Some of the lines and blotches of the face may have been gained in the course of Matthew’s discipleship of Jesus. The gospel story, the words which may bring God’s splendour to human lives, are also inscribed in this man’s body. For Rembrandt there is no truth, no goodness which bypasses this human, material history.
So we come back to the angel. The first obvious fact is, no wings, or at least none we can see. We know Rembrandt like other artists enjoyed the challenge of angels’ wings which he could render memorably. So why are there none here? Because in this case the intimacy of the relationship between angel and human is paramount, even more so than in the case of the angel of the annunciation, where the origin of the angel is emphasised. Here the “beyondness” of the angel is communicated solely by its tenderness and intelligence. God does not come storming into humanity like a bull, but with infinite tenderness, just a touch on the shoulder and a whisper in the ear. And by intelligence I mean not only the capacity of understanding, but also the substance of what is understood, the intelligence shared by spies. The luxuriant hair of the angel, which matches Matthew’s, stands for the fertility of their shared task.
What does all this mean for the content of Matthew’s gospel? He is of course accessing his memory of Jesus, that is, of someone also human, also material, living, acting and suffering in the same material world inhabited by Matthew, and us. The divine one, the son of God, did not bypass human, material history, and indeed, died a human material death. Matthew’s memory of him is of things and events that belong firmly in this world – boats, fishermen, villages, synagogues, meals, teaching, healing, rejection, arrest, torture and death. This is a story that is as true and human as bread.
But full understanding of it only comes from first of all from admitting the tenderness of Jesus. Utterly opposed to arrogance and injustice as he was, he extended an unconquered tenderness to his enemies. In remembering Jesus’ fate, Matthew must also remember this inexplicable tenderness.
And he must also reckon with secret intelligence of Jesus, the knowledge of what he called “The father”, who is not to be bandied about like a commodity but quietly recognised as the one who gives hope of justice beyond injustice, peace beyond violence and life beyond death.
Neither of these qualities annuls the human Matthew or the human Jesus of his gospel. The angel is the tender intelligence which touches Matthew’s historical memory with the understanding that this history itself is a story of rebellion rather than resignation, hope rather than despair.
And Matthew is listening to this whisper which comes simultaneously from the events in which he has participated, and from beyond all universes, from God but still from himself. He is, in D H Lawrence’s great phrase, “The whole man, wholly attending.”