The Never-Ending Last Supper?

Café Terrace at Night (1888)

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

          A simple, serene painting of a starry evening at a café in Arles?  Or, perhaps, a fresh re-visioning of the last supper of Jesus with his 12 disciples?

          Van Gogh was decidedly not overtly religious at the time of this painting.  In fact, his life was quite the opposite of “religious.”  He was drinking heavily, smoking heavily, frequently visiting brothels.  He looked upon the church with disdain, and in a letter from 1880, wrote that a priest in his surplice “looks like a dangerous rhinoceros.” 

          His life had not always been so.  Raised by a Dutch Reformed pastor and a strict, pious mother in the Netherlands, he had himself aspired to become a pastor.  But without much success.  He failed the entrance exam in theology at the University of Amsterdam and shortly after failed a 3-month course at a Protestant missionary school in Belgium.  Nevertheless, he was sent as a pastor to the coal-mining district of Borinage in Belgium, and there he worked hard to emulate his understanding of the life of Jesus.  After only a short time, however, church authorities determined that his rather unorthodox practice of living in a small hut and sleeping on straw—all to become closer to his beloved parishioners—undermined the dignity of a church pastor.   He was dismissed.

          He wandered uneasily through much of the rest of his life, trying this and trying that, and he finally settled on art with the help of his brother Theo.  But his life was never tranquil.  His physical health was poor, his mental health was poor, and throughout his years of painting, his art was dismissed, even as he had been dismissed by his church.

          It seems, however, that through all of these years of turmoil and often debauched living, van Gogh himself never fully dismissed his faith.  In later years, he wrote to his brother Theo of the Christ for whom he longed.  Christ is, he penned, “a greater artist than all other artists…working in living  flesh.  This matchless artist made living men immortals.”  He also wrote to Theo to tell him that he had a “tremendous need for, shall I say the word — for religion.” 

          Interestingly, this last statement was written with specific reference to his painting of “Café Terrace at Night.”  So it’s no surprise that some art aficionados now see this painting as more than a peaceful evening scene of an Arles café at night.  They suggest that van Gogh was actually creating his own version of Christ’s last supper with his twelve disciples, and they ask viewers to consider the following:

          –Eleven people (though it’s difficult to count precisely in an impressionistic painting!)  are seated at tables surrounding the server.

          –A twelfth person, a dark figure, is seen leaving the scene, even as Judas left the disciples gathered for their last meal with their master. 

          –The server is a man dressed in a long white robe. 

          –A lantern, glowing like a halo, hangs just over the server’s head.

          –Directly behind the server, a cross is visible in the window.

          –Several other crosses can also be seen along the street, one cross stretching high into the starry Arles night.  

          All of these facets of the painting suggest that very possibly something more than a mere evening café scene in Arles is what van Gogh has portrayed here.  But why would van Gogh choose an outdoor café setting for the Last Supper?  Why not paint an impressionistic image of that famous Upper Room?  The answer, perhaps, lies in the fact that the Christ for whom van Gogh longed is a Christ not confined by church walls or church rituals.  He is rather a Christ who lives and can be found and experienced in the midst of life.  He is a Christ who frequents the rooms and the activities of our daily lives.  He is a Christ who comes close in our everydays in order to wait upon us and to serve us.

          So it would seem appropriate for van Gogh to have depicted the Last Supper at an Arles café.  Perhaps his very graphic way of saying that the Last Supper is an ongoing, never-ending event as Christ stands among us in every moment, in every ordinary place of all our days and all our nights.  Stands among us, not to lord it over us or to condemn us, but stands among us to serve us.  To make sure our needs are met, to attend to the smallest details of our lives.  To offer us, in the midst of our living, a croissant, a cup of wine, his very body, his very blood.

          Van Gogh left several empty tables at the front of the café.  An invitation, perhaps, for us to sit with the disciples, for us to know that we are always welcome at Christ’s table? 

          In the end, we cannot know with certainty, of course, just what van Gogh had in mind when he painted “Café Terrace at Night,” but I find it compelling to think of this scene as a re-telling of the Last Supper.  And as I look at the painting from this perspective, I find myself hoping that van Gogh himself somehow experienced this serving Christ in all the turmoil of his own troubled life.  Hoping that he somehow knew this Christ to be with him as he splashed irises, sunflowers, and starry nights across his canvases.  Knew this Christ to be with him as he roamed the countryside or the hallways of an asylum.   Knew him to be with him in his tiny room, often drunk or hung-over.  To be with him even as he felt himself fleeing from the faith that had once been so dear to him.  To be with him to feed and nourish him.  To be with him to paint his tattered life immortal.

 

Deep in the Heart of Amaryllis

 

 

 

Deep in the heart of my red amaryllis

the red turns to the blood-bold

red of the setting sun, a scarlet blaze

of fire, a passionate warmth in this cold

awakening of yet another year. 

I’d like to rest awhile inside this petalled

womb, sift through the remnants

of my yesteryear; ponder the hours

that lie ahead, each day the start

of a new year, each moment holding a lifetime. 

I breathe this fiery strength, absorb this radiant

hope, in this red silence wait to be re-born again

and again to live the truth, the beauty

of my amaryllis so alive.

Christmas Tangles

 

Tangled tree lights, memories of Christmas

past dancing along their twisted wires,

dashed hopes and dreams interlaced

with child-happy faces, the aromas

of gingerbread, fresh greens.

*

But memories aside…

as candles, carols, bells sing joy

to all the world these clear, cold nights,

I wrestle with the tangled images

that flash across my screen,

lives dangling from the wrath

of winds, relentless rains,

mired in mud of bigotry and hate,

shriveled up by lust and greed,  

unmoored by guns and ranting tweets that clang

against the all is calm and all is bright

for which we yearn and pray.

*

And the Word was made flesh and dwelled among us…

birthed himself into the tangles

of our winter world

to walk with us,

to ache with us,

to lead us to that

someday tree whose leaves will shelter

all the world with healing joy,

under whose calm, silent branches

arms black and white and red

and brown will intertwine, together

bend the knee before the Child,

whose coming sings the promised hope,

a lion entangles his limbs with a lamb’s,

in a never-ending tango of peace.

 

Sparrow and Me in Autumn

 

So small, so ordinary brown

against the brilliance of the golden

leaves; I watch his anxious body (heart

beating four times faster than my own!),

twitch this way and that, head bobbing

up and down, all a-tremble in the falling

leaves that augur cold, white days to come.

*

Oh, little one, I’d like to offer you

the sureness you are held in tender eye

of God, but often so like you I am;

fearful of tomorrow’s frost, I knot

myself in petty this and foolish that,

fail to lean into the sturdy stillness

of the trees, fail to touch the love

that paints my world so vivid bright,

fail to breathe the calm that whispers

in the crimson winds that brush

across your rapid-beating heart—

and mine.

*

So let me simply sit with you

on your slim, sky-reaching branch,

savor the fragrance of this autumnal

now; let’s hold each other close and trust

we will not be alone as the crystal

walls of winter ice close in

around our fragile lives.

Being Jairus’ Daughter: What Was It Like?

The Raising of Jairus’ Daughterpl

William Blake (1757-1827)

***

A note:  I wrote this piece before the tragic shooting in Las Vegas several nights ago.  So while it’s not a response to that horrible event, the question I believe must have been in the mind of Jairus’ daughter as she lived through her life is a question we all share.  And it’s a question that becomes more urgent after a tragedy like that in Las Vegas.  The question is simply “what is the meaning of life?”  What is the meaning of life for those who were killed or wounded in Las Vegas?  What is the meaning of my life?  Of your life?  So I offer this piece in quiet memory of those who were killed and trust that it will offer hope to their loved ones and to all of us who grieve with them.  

***

Now when Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him. Just then there came a man named Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. He fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years old, who was dying…While he was still speaking, someone came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer.’ When Jesus heard this, he replied, ‘Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved.’ When he came to the house, he did not allow anyone to enter with him, except Peter, John, and James, and the child’s father and mother. They were all weeping and wailing for her; but he said, ‘Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead.  But he took her by the hand and called out, ‘Child, get up!’ Her spirit returned, and she got up at once. Then he directed them to give her something to eat.  Her parents were astounded; but he ordered them to tell no one what had happened. (Luke 8:40-56, selected verses)

***

          I’ve often wondered.  Whatever happened to this unnamed girl whom Jesus raised from death when she was but 12 years old?  We never hear of her again in any of the gospels or in the story of the early church, so I suspect her life was probably quite ordinary.  But ordinary as it may have been, I suspect that it may not have been either a very easy or a very comfortable life. 

          I imagine that many of the people of her village were eager to name her as their village saint, and I suspect that with such elevation came many high expectations of how she should live her life and of what she might be able to do for them.  Some perhaps even now and then gingerly tried to touch the hem of her robe in hopes that something of the power that had brought her back to life would rub off on them. 

          And then I’m sure there were others who did not see her as a saint at all.  They saw her only as a reminder that the Miracle Worker hadn’t chosen to save their loved ones, and they were angry and jealous of her.  Was she so much better than their sons and daughters who had been left to die?  Why had she alone been brought back from the dead?  They wanted to have nothing to do with her.   

          Not easy!  But through all of this, I hope she had her moments of joy.  I suspect she did, but I’m also quite certain that, like all of us, she also experienced difficult times of personal illness and loss.  And I can’t help but wonder if during some of these times she may have wished that Jesus had just let her be.  What, after all, was the meaning of her life?  Why had she been brought back to life when others had not been?  What did it all mean? 

          “I simply don’t know,” I imagine her thinking often to herself.  “I don’t know why I was given a second chance at life when I was 12 years old.  I don’t know if God expects something extraordinary from me.   I know many fellow villagers expect something extraordinary from me.  Think I ought to be perfect, think I ought to be able to perform miracles for them, save their children, whatever.  And my father, God rest his soul, I know he certainly expected my life to be extraordinary.  I don’t know the specifics of his hopes, but I often saw the gleam in his eye when he would look so tenderly at me in my teens and early twenties and whisper those words the Master had spoken to me as I lay deathly cold and still, ‘Child, get up!’

          “Lots of expectations.  But do I expect an extraordinary life for myself?  Sometimes I have hoped I would accomplish something very special in my life, but I haven’t, and much of the time I simply go about my daily tasks.  What I do know is that those words, ‘Child, get up’ left a permanent scar on my soul.   A positive scar.  A profoundly deep sense that my life, tiny and ordinary as it is, is a life treasured and valued.  That my life matters to God and to the Master who spoke those words to my lifeless self.  I’ve heard that some are saying that Master was actually God wrapped in our human flesh.  I don’t understand about all of that, but I do know that God was with him.  That in that moment, God scarred my soul with a searing love.”

          Theologian Emil Brunner in The Christian Doctrine of God writes of God regarding each of us “from all eternity, with the gaze of everlasting love.”  An eternal gaze, he says, that gives to each of us a sense of “eternal meaning,” a sense of “eternal dignity.” 

          Maybe something like that is what Jairus’ daughter felt.  That gaze of everlasting love focused on her.  That gaze of divine love infusing her days with a sense of extraordinary meaning and dignity, ordinary as they might have been.    

          I wish we knew more of her story.  But perhaps we know enough, just enough, to help us ponder our own lives, our own stories.  Just enough to help us realize anew that our tiny lives, too, are steeped in that loving gaze of the God who has looked upon us from all eternity.  Just enough to hear the voice of that God calling to us in every moment of our lives, “Child, get up.”

 

 

 

Late Summer Afternoon

 

The air is leaden, thick, and

shadows creep across my silent deck;

the sun arcs slowly toward the west,

the moon, a tiny splinter in the haze of blue,

whispers the dark of coming night; rusty

leaves hang limp, the birds are hushed;

I sit alone, swallowed in the empty vastness

spread across my tiny deck.   

*

A gentle cooing sudden lifts the heavy air;

my eyes look up, and there she sits,

a mourning dove atop the rail, stretching  

her silky neck this way and that; she holds

my gaze, her eye attentive, pensive,

soft; then stretching yet again towards me

across the brooding silence of the day,

she coos once more and lays a gentle

peace, a quiet kindness in my soul

before she softly flows into the endless

hours of this late summer afternoon.

My Summer Travels with Thoreau

          “I have traveled a good deal in Concord,” Henry David Thoreau once famously said of his frequent walks through his home town.   Usually when we think of “travel,” we think of visiting places away from home, places remote maybe, or ancient; places filled with history, with art; places to awaken our imaginations, relax our often over-busy lives.

          But for Thoreau, who never ventured far from his native Concord and his Walden Pond, travel simply meant a careful observation of all that lay immediately around him.  Travel meant having eyes to see what can be so easily overlooked in all the familiar places of our lives.

          These days, living as I do with CFS/ME, I no longer travel much beyond the street on which we live.  But I am learning to travel with Thoreau, learning better to see and appreciate the immensity that lies right here on our little street.  Here’s a bit of what I’ve seen in my spring and summer “travels.”

not the Arc de Triomphe

just a simple arch celebrating

life ever-renewing

inviting us to walk beneath its bower

to mini triumphs of our own

***

lantana basking in the summer sun

reaching beyond its confines

to dance and frolic

in its tiny corner of the world

***

nature’s votive candles

tucked in a niche of the Cathedral of the Wind,

lit, perhaps, in memory of earlier

leaves and flowers that have come and gone,

sanctity of all of life

***

tiny green beetle

bulging black eyes

legs stippled and striped,

antennae extending into the unknown;

mystery of life

***

 

delicate lace tatted perhaps

by Belgian fairies working late

beneath the sliver of a silvered moon,

each tiny stitch a miracle of love

***

a piece of bark shredded from a tree,

limp, but yet alive

with ancient memories,

nature’s sculpted art displayed

on shelf of bright green grass 

***

a lone pine cone

seeds of new life expectant held

in soft green sheltering arms

beneath an endless sky

beckoning to new horizons

here and after here

***

Yes!  I have traveled a good deal on my little street and am thankful for each marvel that has brightened my summer days.