Today is Rembrandt’s 407th birthday (thank you, Google). I found this out as I sat down to write a quick post about our vacation. However, when I learned of this, I was compelled to write about Rembrandt. I love his work. His depiction of light and dark. The haunting expressions on his subjects’ faces. His rich use of the color red. A copy of this painting below hangs in the foyer of my home, right next to the front door:
The title of the piece is “The Return of the Prodigal Son“. I came across it about ten years ago in one of the texts I was using in my ninth grade English class. I fell in love with it immediately. It made my heart weep. I know that sounds weird, but, as a man, I find I do not cry enough. Yet, there are moments when I see or experience something where my heart aches in a way that makes me feel as if I am crying. That’s what I feel when I view this work of art. Rembrandt captures so many emotions in the painting that we experience as humans: love, sin, jealousy, and, if we’re lucky, forgiveness. He has created a blend of contradictions: beauty and ugliness; love and hatred; wealth and poverty; satisfaction and disgust. I had my students each assume the role of one of the subjects in the painting, and write from that person’s perspective. The results were profound. And in doing so, I realized that I have experienced each of these perspectives depicted in the piece: I have been the sinner, I have been the jealous brother, I have been the bewildered bystander, and I have been the one who forgives.
As a child, I remember hearing the gospel story of the prodigal son at church on Sundays. I hated this story. It angered me. I was so mad that the father would take back his son after all of the horrible things he did, including shutting out his family as he went about the land sinning–drinking and sleeping around. I, of course, identified with the responsible brother. The one who tried to avoid sin. The one who saved his inheritance for a rainy day. The one who obeyed his father, and stayed on to help him tend to his house. I identified so strongly with what I came to understand in retrospect was his self-righteous attitude. A lifetime later, so much of my attitude has changed.
I am not a very religious person today, yet this story is one that I continue to hold dear. To me, it conveys all that forgiveness entails. The prodigal son signifies all the ugliness found in our wrongdoings, yet there is a fragile beauty in his tattered appearance–a beauty that only a parent could understand. The hands of the father convey how such a simple gesture of love can melt away all the fear, the shame, and pride that prevents one from seeking forgiveness. Those hands embrace the sinner and the son. True, there will always be those like the brother, who stand above these two–so high and mighty–looking down his nose at such a pure, honest gesture. Yet, there will also be others who bear witness to this selfless, sincere expression of unconditional love found in forgiveness. And perhaps those people will walk away from this scene and find it in their hearts to embrace another who hurt them, who betrayed them, who wronged them.
Yes, this painting hangs in my hallway by the front door. I look at it often when I go to turn on the front light at night. I imagine those who have wronged me returning, and I pray that I have the strength of the father to forgive. I think about those who I have hurt, and wonder what would happen if I knelt at their feet. I carry this image in my mind as I work through so many fractured relationships in my life. I am not naive enough to think that all will someday be right, but I never underestimate the power and healing found in one’s willingness to forgive, to be forgiven.
Thank you, Rembrandt.