When I saw the painting, I first assumed it was Dutch, influenced by Vermeer, perhaps one of his students borrowing his technique — how he often had a hidden light source illuminating the people and objects in his paintings.
But maybe that’s because I had just seen a bunch of Dutch paintings at the Philadelphia Museum, and I’m always a bit ‘too proud’ of my one visit to the Frick Muesum in NYC and remembering tidbits about Vermeer — that he painted middle class domestic scenes in two rooms of his house and most often depicted his canvases dramatically lit from an unseen source. That’s might be about all I know about fine art!
But, of course, here, the light source is obvious. Or only hidden in as much as we may not quite comprehend how the light is emanating from the Christ child. But there is no doubt, he is the source of all the illumination we seen reflected in the faces those gathered around him.
And the painter was not Dutch but Italian, and a few years earlier than Vermeer. This is Caravaggio’s Adoration of the Shepherds. Caravaggio also played with light, darkening shadows and transfixing closely detailed subjects in bright shafts of light, a dramatic use of chiaroscuro that came to be known as tenebrism. (Suddenly, I feel like a Fine Arts major!)
How many of you remember the ending of the poem that I used in worship on the first Sunday of Advent, Jan Richardson’s “Blessing for When the World Is Ending?” The poet explained that such a blessing won’t save you, or fix the situation, or talk to you about one door opening when another closes. Rather…
“It will simply
sit itself beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
as the world begins
We’re passing the darkest part of the year, the earth’s longest night. For many of us, the world feels sorrowfully short on light in other ways too. Personally. Politically. Internationally.
I believe our light — metaphorically and physically — comes from God, from God’s love to be more exact. Much more than that I can’t explain. Except to add that I believe that light can come in all sorts of ways, as God is the source and can use all things. Through other people. From animals. Or inanimate objects. In words. In art. Or everyday acts of decency and kindness…
But I also believe, as a Christian, that Jesus is a primary way that God lights my life. (Here love is again central to this movement!) The sun shining on the earth is for me a great metaphor for what we believe about God. Yes, I know, we have hymns that play with the sun / son homonyms! But I’m talking about the sun (or am I talking about the son?). …How this incomprehensible power — sometimes you cannot help but notice it, but other times, it’s as if it is no where to be found, or still other times, you can experience its effects even though you cannot see it. The sun is so strong that it can threaten and hurt you, but it is also life-giving and nurturing. It’s light and heat travel over great distances and time to get to us, but nonetheless, they reach us in real, palpable ways. Even on the coldest winter day, outdoors, you can feel the heat of the sun warm your face. Heat not only warms, it also grows and burns and cooks and purifies. Light not only illuminates, it also outlines silhouettes and forms. It shines in dark corners and shows us what has been lost or hidden or forgotten.
God, like the sun itself, is complex and mysterious, not easily controlled but such an amazing resource nonetheless. The center of our universe. The dermatologist dogs me to wear a hat and lather myself in sunscreen. But I like the sun too much on my skin. Not just the warmth, but the effect — the tanning (the dermatologist calls it prolonged skin damage) as a sign that I have been kissed and changed by the sun. I know it’s not good. I know.
But still I say, when my time is near an end — way down the road let’s hope — and even if my last day is in the cold of February, I pray, someone will take me outside and turn me to the sun, and if I have the strength, I might be able to lift my face upward and breathe my last with the assurance of that warmth and light on my countenance, an outward sign of my trust that death does not mean that the love of God is being removed from me. In fact, love will have seen me through, and will still have enough to carry me on…
See you in church (where it’s always warm and light),