Eleanor our daughter died on 21st April of this year

E:

“There’s something about him, the smart boy certainty, the wee

boy lies, the impertinent refusal to face facts, the confusion of free-

-dom with freedom to make money, the meanness of his unconcern

For human lives, that makes him easily hated by people who yearn

For simple decency. Trump. They long to rat-a -tat-tat their best punches

On his sneering face. And even Jesus, who was happy to have lunches

With prostitutes and collaborators, drew the line at those who blackguarded

The power of love and healing. He called their sin eternal. He’d have red-carded

Donald before now. Yet heaven sees beyond the sinner and the sin, resists

An easy condemnation, wants to know of evil acts the twists

And turns through which they came about. We see here a boy

Whose father made him feel unloved, told him wealth was his to enjoy

Only if he earned it by hard-heartedness and guile. He learned that calling

Yourself successful often meant your failures were ignored, falling

Would be seen as clever climbing, debts as profits, error

Hailed as strategy, yet nothing served to soothe the terror

That he’d be found out and punished, so if he suspected opposition

He got his retaliation in first. But what a sly trick of the Evil One

To get him stand for president and become the instant hero

Of millions whose desperation for success and fear of

Truth, matched his. And if at times he doubted, they knew a killer

When they saw one and lifted him to power to fulfil their

base desires, which he has done. In heaven we weep

To see the bodies and souls of the sick he wants to sweep

Out of sight so he can claim another victory. We use the word evil

Of him but also know all those whose lust to be deceived will

Permit the evil to take place. Evil is a communal disease;

Goodness is communal health. Understand this wisdom, please:

Through lack of love and self-respect the human soul is sickened

And only through being given these can its new life be quickened.”

Here Rembrandt takes the famous incident where Jesus visits Martha and her sister Mary, who adopts the posture of a disciple, while Martha prepares a meal. When in exasperation Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her, Jesus says Mary has chosen the better thing and it will not be taken from her. The story is told with no comment, but it clearly shows Jesus accepting a woman as a disciple.

Rembrandt has spent some time on this drawing, witness the detail of the clothes, and the impression of a kitchen. His representation of Martha is masterly; she is not doing anything out of the ordinary. She is preparing a meal and gesturing towards her seated sister, expecting Jesus to close the conversation by sending her to help. She is not vehement; she is reminding Jesus of a woman’s role

But her pointing hand is matched by Jesus’ open hand asserting that Mary is doing the right thing. He is also calm, as if indicating what is to be the new normal for women. He makes no fuss but simply approves Mary’s daring. The important thing about this guest is that he comes to feed as well as to be fed.

Mary’s face, seen full on, returns her sister’s gaze without apology or rancor: she has made her choice. Rembrandt’s Reformed Church offered women no ordained ministry, like most mainstream churches until the 20th century, but I think he saw and understood the radical truth of this incident.

Our daughter Eleanor died on 21st April of this year.

E:

You asked about my relationship with God

now, and since it is a present fact, you’ll find it odd

I can’t answer you directly, but it should not surprise you

since even Jesus chose to use parables as a device to

communicate the indefinable. And I found a narrative

In yesterday’s BBC news, which seems to me to give

an image of my history with the One I still call Father

although this name is dirt for sisters who would rather

Say mother or abandon all this parental claptrap.

Doubtless a painter could make a painting or a geographer a map

of God, but as a lover of words I am stuck with stories.

“MatJames Metson was born to a family of artists whose mores

Meant never settling down. He inherited their energy and art.

When he was sixteen he loved a girl called Selanie and they were part-

-ners for a while until she was pregnant and gave birth to a daughter,

Naming her Tyler. When MatJames held her he knew he ought to

Share her upbringing but felt fear like a great load on his shoulders

And ran and kept on running till he came to New Orleans. Bolder,

He wanted to be bolder, but first he had to learn how to be. He could

Paint and make decorated objects using metal or plastic or wood,

Which were full of life and charm like himself as he grew, befriended

By people in the French quarter. He prospered, was happy until it all ended

With Hurricane Katrina, which tore the city to bits and left him with nothing

But his two dogs. A friend brought him to LA but he wasn’t coping

Alone in a tenement flat surrounded by rats and drug dealers

Empty, mourning his former friends, unable to put out feelers

In the city of angels to touch new life, he thought of killing

Himself, but even that demanded a process of willing

He could not provide. He sat blankly looking at a blank wall.

His phone rang and a voice said, hello, I’m Tyler. Oh, he said, all

These years I hoped you’d call. As they spoke, he could sense creativity

Flooding into him, once more he was plugged into the electricity

Of life. She said she’d phone again, he knew the load had gone, he’d

Run no more, but be a maker, and make himself a father she’d

Be proud of. She came to him and he to her and both delighted

To share the other with families and friends. And all that mighty

Surge of joy, he says, came from a phone-call out of nowhere

Into nothing, from his child.” You may think it’s a blasphemy

To tell this of me and God; that any proper theological system we

Devise must make God the saviour and ourselves the needy.

But I’ve only ever known a wounded God. The One who feeds me

now, I had to feed with trust and hope. Is this faith beyond the pale

Of decent orthodoxy? I think he is contented with my tale.

On 21st April our daughter Eleanor died.

E: 

“I wonder if you ever found my purse?

One of my last memories is giving it to a nurse.

Probably you got my stuff back from the hospital,

The clothes you’d bought me, the new dressing gown, did you bring it all

Home? Then you would have my handbag with the purse inside.

Open it – I had no cash- you’ll find my useful cards. In pride

Of place, the ANGUS ACCESS CARD of which I was reminded

Here, where all see goodness with eyes no longer blinded

By self or sorrow, because of all the good it did for me:

the means of getting all the services the County readily

Provides its residents according to their needs; in my case,

poor and crippled, with buses, swimming pools and libraries.

You use a car, but think of an isolated woman on the bus

Happy to be amongst people, to travel free with no fuss, 

To speak a little perhaps. Envisage you were once athletic

But now your bones are brittle and your strength pathetic

How good it is to feel the water bear you up, your arms cleave it.

And if like me you want to read ten books a week, could you achieve it

Without a library? Do you remember the one in Arbroath, a mansion

With welcoming staff and and open shelves where you can get your hands on

12 books at a time? Local government is derided but it worked miracles

For me, so when I hear people complain about its charges, my hackles

Rise, even now. Heaven knows the worth of individual caring, yet

What marvels we can do when kindnesses are corporate

And placed within political routine. If you find the card (no pressure!)

Hold it as one of the earthly things that I still treasure.”

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 Mike, 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.