In chapter 8 of the Gospel of John there is the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery. It doesn’t really belong there as it also appears in some versions of Luke’s gospel. It’s a floating narrative which seemed so genuine that it had to be included somewhere in the text of the gospels.

Eager scribes and pharisees bring the woman to Jesus – without the man- and ask if she should be stoned to death, as the Torah laid down. Jesus wrote with his finger on the ground, then said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” The accusers were silent and left, starting with the eldest. Then Jesus said to her, “Has no man condemned you?” “No, master,” she answered. “Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus said, “Go, and sin no more.”

Rembrandt sketches in the hostile gathering of Pharisees, scribes and nosey onlookers. The woman is exposed, shamed and afraid. Somehow the man escaped, as perhaps often happened with the complicity of the righteous male authorities. As in certain Islamic communities today, stoning did happen. In Rembrandt’s drawing, all eyes are on Jesus, who is writing on the ground with his finger. He is concentrating fiercely on his task, looking neither at the woman nor her accusers. How is Rembrandt interpreting Jesus’ action? Various interpretations were current, for example that Jesus was writing down the sins of the accusers.

I think the rapt concentration of Jesus is the clue: he is taking the role of God writing the commandment with his finger on the stone tablets, reminding the accusers that the Law does not belong to them but to the holy One who gave it. To invoke the Law is to invoke that holy one, who now in Jesus, stands in their midst and declares judgment: punishment can only be given by the sinless in the gathering! Once they have left, Jesus in the name of the holy One, tells the woman that he does not condemn her, but urges her not to sin again.

Jesus’ action on the ground is powerful enough to capture the attention of all, inviting them to imagine the finger of God. Elsewhere Jesus is recorded as saying, “If by the finger of God I cast out evil spirits, know that the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Those words could be applied to this scene.

I don’t know if Rembrandt saw it this way, but I think the almost impersonal focus of Jesus’ face and upper body, suggests that he did. The reformed church to which Rembrandt belonged was also a guardian of community morals, sexual immorality being a frequent issue for its discipline. In this drawing Rembrandt is asking if that sort of discipline is Christlike.

Luke’s account of Jesus spiritual struggle before his arrest is briefer that that of Matthew and Mark – there is only one prayer- but he adds the detail of an angel ministering to Jesus. Rembrandt is good at angels: there is the one who stops Abraham killing Isaac, and the splendid one who whispers in the ear of Matthew as he writes his gospel. He understands the beauty and balance of the wings.

Here the angel has come to comfort Jesus in his agony of spirit, providing what his disciples are unable or unwilling to give. Jesus is on his knees in prayer, knowing that he must go to his death. His body is depicted as pliant, without strength, so the bird of heaven must land and perch beside him. The angel’s wings remain unfolded, enclosing Jesus, and the legs are bent, squatting in front of him to provide support.

The angel’s face is poised to look with tender concern at Jesus’ face, which however is closed to his gaze as Jesus simply leans into the angel’s embrace, and continues to pray.

The angel is a sign of what the father God can and can’t do: he can send heaven’s comfort, but he is in heaven and cannot accompany Jesus to his death. So the comfort given to the son of God is no better than that given to any man facing death; only the man can do what must be done and suffer what must be suffered. The wings are the giveaway; they do not belong to the earth. Soon the bird will fly off, and the man will have decided to face his enemies.

All this in a brief sketch.

In chapter 13 of John’s Gospel we find the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, the task of a slave. He later tells them that they must do the same for each other.

Rembrandt depicts the moment when Jesus washes Peter’s feet. He protests that he will never allow Jesus to do this menial task for him. Jesus says that only in this way can Peter have a share in his life. Peter then goes over the top and asks to be washed all over. Jesus is patient but makes it clear that any idea of being better than others is precisely what he is trying to get rid of.

Rembrandt wants to show what is involved in washing feet. He is not concerned with symbolism but with the posture which a person must adopt if he is going to wash feet. Jesus is hunkered down, balanced securely, so that he can reach out towards the feet. He is not playing games but seriously focused on the job in hand. He does not glance upwards at Peter, nor backwards at the other disciples. He is doing a practical kindness, a tender service.

Perhaps Rembrandt was remembering his depiction of Jesus healing the leper, the way he abolishes the distance between sickness and health. Here, while retaining his role as teacher and Lord, he abolishes the distance between commander and commanded, teacher and pupil. There is only a sharing of life: a dusty foot and a hand that washes it.

In a few strokes Rembrandt has depicted the radical simplicity of Jesus’ gospel.

In Mark chapter 1 from verse 40 we find the story of the leper who approaches Jesus, keels and says, “If you want to, you can make me clean.” The best text tells how Jesus reacted with anger to this request which showed the extent of the man’s lack of confidence, brought about by his separation from the healthy community. Jesus responded by saying, “I do want to,” stretched out his hand and touched him, commanding, “Be clean!”

Rembrandt dramatises the separation between the leper and the community, represented by the figures to Jesus’ right, who are disturbed by this encounter. The leper left space between Jesus and himself because of the law which forbad any physical contact between lepers and anyone else, forcing them to associate only with each other, on the fringes of society. To have the disease, which was in many cases not true leprosy, was a sentence of familial and social, if not also physical, death.

Rembrandt did not know the best text of the bible, so he showed Jesus, moved ‘by compassion” bending towards the man and abolishing the distance by stretching out and touching him, a gesture which was against the law. It is a revolutionary action, signalling disobedience to a holy rule of public health. Mark is of course recounting a miracle, but Rembrandt shows it as the most natural inclination of the body and mind of the healer: society creates the gap and turns away; Jesus turns towards the sick person and bridges the gap.

That most natural and gentle of gestures is made by Rembrandt into a symbol of Jesus’ ministry. The gap is also that between rich and poor, righteous and sinner, Jew and Gentile, clean and unclean. The person who is on the wrong side of any of these separations, can imagine the hand of Jesus crossing the gap to touch her. This carelessness with important societal taboos, aroused powerful opposition to Jesus, and was one of the reason why this gentle hand was eventually nailed to an execution stake.

The image of Jesus entering a forbidden area (death) in order that others should enter an area of freedom (life) is fundamental to Mark’s Gospel.

Our only child Eleanor died on 21st April this year

M: I had thought of the day as an anniversary, two months since you died, but had forgotten that it it was Father’s Day, only to be reminded by your mum, who had bought gifts for me. Am I still a father, I wondered, connecting mentally with Michael, Kirsty, Eileen and Thea, who probably have thoughts today of their dad who died last year. Still, that’s the right way round at least, the young grieving for the old, not like us.

I do have memories of Father’s days in the past; times when you cooked something splendid, gave me vulgar cards; times you were too ill to do anything. Above all however I remember that for so many Father’s Days, behind all fun and love, there was my fear for your life, that your body would give out, or that on one of your binges some bastard would kill you. Neither of these were idle fears, as you were repeatedly ill, and seriously assaulted more than once. Living with fear made you the more precious, but also at times the object of my anger: how dare you not look after yourself for my sake!

As you may detect, some of this stuff is still slopping around my soul, getting in the road of more important feelings. In fact, today, the Lord’s Day, Father’s Day, my main feeling is doubt. How have I managed to build up this comforting illusion that you are raised from death and communicating with me? Yes, I have always left open the possibility that I was inventing it all. Indeed, I knew our conversation flowed from my mind, but I trusted that my mind was prompted by reality, the reality of your life in God. Indeed, if God is real, then life beyond death must also be real, for God must have some way of making up for the travesty of life on earth given to so many human beings – and animals, as you would want me to add. So this is not a doubt concerning resurrection, but about God, himself/herself, immortal and invisible, the only wise God.

Monsters stalk our earth. Trump, but far worse than him the monstrous mob, many of them Christian, who love him and approve his policies. Behind him, and other large lizards, like Johnson, Putin, Xi, Orban, Erdogan are the possessors of capital determined to suck all life from the world, as long as it lasts till they snuff it. Unlike some classic monsters of the past they have no care for their own children and grandchildren. The sum of suffering created just in our time by these terrorists is so huge that the best theologies may after all be those that depict this world as vale of tears in which the only salvation is escape. But perhaps it would be more honest to remember the playwright John Osborne, one of whose characters, offered the option of believing in God, says he’s tried it but it didn’t do what it said in the advert. It was like buying a hoover and finding that not only did it not beat or sweep or clean but actually blew the dust back out all over the bloody house…

You’d think that almost any kind of half-decent God, far less the only wise One, would be able to make a better fist of the universe than this one, whose earth creatures may fairly soon end ip fried to a crisp. Of course I’ve been living with these doubts all my adult life; so I hope that I’m not being overwhelmed by them now when something bad has happened to me. I don’t think so, it’s just that on this Father’s Day it seems to me probable that you are dead and gone, finished, caput; a mortal part of my mortal life; a gift of uncountable richness, but now a memory only, leaving me with gratitude that you existed and terrible anger that you don’t still. Maybe it would be more honest of me to renounce…..

E: You’ll never hear me if you make so much noise.

A series of blogs on Rembrandt’s images of Jesus in drawings and etchings

Jesus teaching

This is a rapid drawing, a sketch for a famous etching, but it has all the strength and mastery of Rembrandt’s best work. Jesus is depicted in the midst of a gathering, not separate or on a different level from his hearers. Certainly he is the focus of attention, but he is not speaking down, or haranguing them; rather he is talking calmly and seriously with them, perhaps telling a story or offering wisdom for ordinary living.

He is solidly poised among them, relaxed, meeting their gaze, engaged with what he is saying. In some paintings and etchings Rembrandt gives Jesus a radiance around his head, whereas here there is nothing obvious that makes people gather around him. They do so because he has something to say and wants to say it to them. He is amongst his own.

The architectural background may suggest that the scene is the Temple where Jesus is recorded as teaching, and the “people heard him gladly,” not least perhaps because he offered an alternative to the scribes and the pharisees.

The crowd itself is varied; a hat is a class indicator, and there are two here, in the midst of bare heads and caps. There are men women and children, standing and sitting, human bodies in a variety of postures attending to another human being who is upright and open to them. One would hesitate to call it democratic but certainly it is a gathering of the demos, the people, and the mood is public. Jesus is offering his wisdom for public consideration, and the public is considering it. It is also informal, governed by no rules except those of communal custom and courtesy.

The record of the public teaching of Jesus is especially present in Matthew and Luke, where it takes up substantial proportion of the text. This aspect of Jesus’ ministry tends to get lost in the letters of Paul and in the theologies which are based on them, which focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus almost to the exclusion of his teaching. Rembrandt’s drawing presents a vivid image of the teacher and his pupils.

Our daughter Eleanor died on 21st April of this year

M: There was something about this morning’s weather that made me think of you..

E: Yes?

M: Well, it was a bit dim and dreepy (!) – no really, it was calm and misty early, and it was like one of those days when we’d planned to go climbing and we weren’t sure whether the mist would lift and make it worth while…….

E: I felt drawn back to it as well – of course we’re never actually far away, it’s a matter of paying attention. So I could see the mist on the river, the moisture on the grass, the shore birds standing quietly. And you, running on the sports field by the beach.

M: Doing my interval training. Now it’s 15 times 100 metres, with a short walk in between. It was good today because there was hardly any wind, softer under foot due to rain, and a strong smell of earth and seaweed.

E: Before, I loved all that but today, although I could “see” it, I couldn’t sense it and I was disappointed…

M: Explain if you can….

E: When you look at the natural world, first of all you’re glad to be away from concrete and asphalt, into the place of living things; and all your senses have evolved over millennia by interaction with your environment. You become a creature again among creatures. I can’t do that any more. Oh I can do lots of other things that you can only dream of…..

M: There’s always just a little bit of sadness in any interaction with nature..

E: Because you know you have to die. You sense a kind of mortal solidarity amongst things that perish. Their beauty is perfect but it doesn’t last. I bet you found yourself wondering how much longer you will have, to feel your physical self in its natural setting…

M: Do you have to so cheery? Aren’t you supposed to be full of joy in your new life? Even if you’re not playing a harp, you’re always praising God, eh?

E: Have you ever thought how boring it would be if people were praising you all the time? We simply enjoy being with God and God enjoys being with us; We share God’s love for the earth, but since we lack our flesh and blood bodies, we can’t love the way you do.

M: So after all there are things that are impossible for God?

E: God has particular memories of the earth -like me- but we can’t be mortal anymore. Still, we can share your experience if you let us.

M: And that means, I can actually give God, or you, something you don’t have. On a sunny June morning I can think of you and say, have some of this, my dears?

E: Or on a cold November day in the wind and the rain, you can say, share some of this crap…but whatever you do, don’t waste the once for all privilege of being human and mortal….the smell of new-mown grass..

M: You’ve told me something I didn’t know although you said that couldn’t happen!

E: I think when you consider it, you’ll find you knew it but forgot it. Isn’t there a poem you used to read to me that says, Death is the mother of beauty?

M: Don’t go…

E: I don’t go anywhere. Remember, we share all the time.

* the poem of which she spoke is Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens, a great atheist manifesto, which, as well as Death is the mother of beauty, includes these lines:

Their chant shall be a chant of paradise,
Out of their blood, returning to the sky;
And in their chant shall enter, voice by voice,
The windy lake wherein their lord delights,
The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills,
That choir among themselves long afterward.
They shall know well the heavenly fellowship
Of men that perish and of summer morn.
And whence they came and whither they shall go
The dew upon their feet shall manifest.

Our daughter Eleanor died on 21st April of this year. She left me the soft toys she used as puppets in her stories for children.
E: I saw you using my animals yesterday for your zoom worship…
M: It’s true I felt close to you….I don’t like doing that stuff alone, it was more fun with the two of us… what did you think of it, by the way?
E. It was a disgraceful surrender of the serious task of teaching children about their eternal salvation, while substituting a piece of knockabout comedy. And all the better for that!
M: It really is you! You haven’t lost your sense of humour. It’s been a while, my dear, I don’t quite know why….
E: You’ve been sad, sadder than you were right after my death, why’s that?
M: Because, as time goes by, days, and weeks, I’ve realised you’re not coming back. You won’t suddenly be here again, for the next part of our story…
E: But soon enough, you’ll be here for it. You’re an old fart, remember
M: Are you allowed to swear in… in…?
E: We’d agreed to call it heaven and the answer is yes, as long as it’s done with affection. Or did you have a sudden thought I might be in what you people call the other place?
M: No. But I do remember the story of the believer who goes to heaven, and asks for cigarettes and is told, sorry they belong in the other place. And he gets the same answer when he looks for booze, and night clubs and the bookie’s: sorry they belong in the other place. Exasperated he questions St Peter, what’s going on, pal, all the good things of life are missing here, but available in the other place!
E: I’ll do it: Sorry, says St. Peter, it’s just the way it is, everything’s gone to hell since the Tory Government got in! Ach, there’s nothing like the old ones. Fortunately, heaven is not much like the stories…
M: No golden crowns, no sea of glass, no harps?
E: No space, no time..
M: So when we say you’re in heaven, what are you in?
E: Love. We’re in love.
M: Ach child. Are you happy?
E: All the barriers to learning how to be happy have been removed; so, I’m learning. In life I didn’t learn it. But you haven’t learned it either, have you?
M: What d’ye mean?
E: You haven’t learned how to be happy.
M: You didn’t help much!
E: I hope that’s not bothering you too much. I’ve forgiven myself for my mistakes.
M: I thought God does the forgiving…
E: Yes, but if you really believe that, you then have to forgive yourself. Have you done that, for your mistakes?
M: No, that’s why they haunt me. And yes, I made … mistakes.. with you. Have you forgiven me?
E: Certainly not! In fact I’ve a long list of them with appropriate penalties for each. Yes, of course I’ve forgiven the mistakes and given thanks for all the things you got right.
M: That’s a relief..
E: Everyone thinks living in love would be easy. It’s not. For a start you have to unlearn all the protections you built against hate. And failure.
M: Can you still fail in heaven?
E: If you can learn, you can fail.
M: That’s good. I believe in love and forgiveness but I don’t want everything done for me. I want to achieve something.
E: You want God to mark your jotter and say, well done, don’t you?
M: I guess so….
E: Well I can’t tell you things you don’t know, but I can tell you, it’s better than that.
M: Why can’t you tell me things I don’t know?
E: Because I can only work to the limits of your imagination. That’s how we meet.
M: So maybe I’m just making all this up to comfort myself?
E: Is that what you think, that I’m figment of your imagination?
M: No, I don’t think so, I hope not.
E: Hold on to that hope. Try to learn some more happiness. Love to mum. I’ll always be here.

One of a series which explores the artist’s images of Jesus.

I apologise for the size of this image, but perhaps even in this reduction, readers will be able to see its power. This is one of the few where Jesus is not main figure. He is shown turning back towards the Canaanite woman who has plead with him for her sick child. He has responded like a good Jew, saying the food for God’s children should not be given to the wee dogs. This insult hangs in the air until the woman, with all the wit of her desperation throws herself on to all fours and reminds him that the wee dogs under the table can usually get the crumbs. Startled her wit and persistence, Jesus is in the act of admitting his fault and applauding her act of faith. He heals the child.

Now there are scholars who say that Jesus was testing the woman. Does anyone think that a football fan in court for making monkey noises at a black player, would get off with the excuse that he was testing his victim’s mental strength? No, you can’t call anyone’s daughter a wee dog without prejudice. This makes this story itself a test for honest commentary, and of course, honest representation in art.

Rembrandt passes the test surely. He shows Jesus off -centre identified with the standing figures of his disciples, who are either ignoring or looking askance at the woman, whom they are bypassing. The upright group are about to refuse the woman’s request: she is not one of them. But she has thrown all this into confusion by adopting the posture of a dog, and claiming that even wee dogs have rights. Seeing their prejudice acted out before them, stops them in their tracks. Jesus learns from her action what he already knows, that he cannot hold his hallowed prejudice if he remembers whose ‘food’ he is distributing. The woman by her doggy act reminds Jesus that she and her daughter are also children of the father. She has appealed to his heart and mind over the barrier of his words.

Rembrandt knew that Jesus urged people to turn to God and to their neighbours. Here he shows him obeying his own teaching by turning towards this woman. His perfection is not that he never did anything wrong, but that he was always open to learn and to do God’s goodness. (The doctrine of his sinlessness is part of an elaborate theory of how he brought salvation to the world. We can put it in the bin along with notions of Mary’s perpetual virginity and the like.)

People who acted out the I Can’t Breathe of George Floyd will understand the meaning of a Rembrandt’s woman pretending to be a dog in front of a bunch of men, and its power. The physical arrangement of the figures and their postures tells the story.

A series of blogs on Rembrandt’s drawings, etchings and paintings of Jesus.

Jesus heals Peter’s wife’s mother

Rembrandt’s images show that he read his bible with an active intelligence, applying what he had learned from the teaching of his church, while allowing his hand to discover more of the humanity of biblical characters, including Jesus. Inevitably as he imagined the body of Jesus, its weight and poise, the movement of arms and legs, he found an understanding of him that is very different from that held by those who work with words. Like me. Faced with Rembrandt’s vision of Jesus, I recognise immediately the poverty of words.

This drawing is of the incident in chapter 1 of Mark’s gospel, which tells of a Sabbath day in Jesus’ ministry. After synagogue, in which Jesus has cast out an evil spirit, he is invited to Peter’s house where his wife’s mother is said to be suffering from a fever. We can guess that she lives there because she is widowed and has come to be with her daughter. She is the older woman, but she is not in charge of the house. As the house would only have one large room, with curtained spaces for sleeping, she would have been within earshot of the houseguests, who were expected to ignore her. But Jesus, breaking all social taboos, enters her area, a man to a woman, and worse, takes her “by the hand”. He is not prepared to let her languish out of sight.

Notice how Rembrandt has Jesus use both hands, with his bare feet firmly poised on the floor, so that he can bend towards her, ready to lift her with strength of his trunk, from her bedding to her feet. Only the action is paused at the first moment of lifting, so that the calm pressure of Jesus’ ‘rescue’ is evident. But also evident is the cooperative reaction of the woman who braces herself to be raised. This is how Jesus deals with the social displacement of this woman: he helps her to her feet and she takes over the role of host. It is also a powerful image of Jesus “rescue” of a sick humanity: he bends towards it in compassion, he lifts it up, the human being responds.

Rembrandt understood of every story in Mark’s gospel was an image of the whole salvation that Jesus worked for humanity. Not just every woman but every man also can put themselves in the posture of the mother-in-law, to feel the inexorable kindness of Jesus prompting them to stand on their feet.

We realise that learning how his muscles worked is knowing something new about Jesus.