One of my favorite things about our Christian faith is the emphasis on light.
I do not mean light as the opposite of darkness. Barbara Brown Taylor has a lot to say about the dangers of “full solar spirituality.”* When I notice light, particularly the light of Jesus Christ, I celebrate it as a good in and of itself.
My favorite reading from scripture is the passage from John 1 which is traditionally read at midnight mass or Christmas morning. In great poetic language, John the Evangelist seems to sing:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (2 John 1:1-5)
17th century Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, or just Rembrandt, is an expert at capturing brilliance into his paintings. I first came to appreciate Rembrandt’s work while reading Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, where he reflects on the well-known Christian parable, particularly in relationship to the light and shadows depicted in Rembrandt’s work.
Rembrandt’s painting Simeon in the Temple is no different. This masterpiece depicts visually what Luke the Evangelist conveys in Luke 2.22-40: the ritual purification of Mary and the redemption of the firstborn son, both described in Torah. Little did Mary and Joseph know that their routine would bring them face-to-face with a man who had waited his whole life to behold their infant son.
The light in Rembrandt’s painting tells the whole story – a story of dazzling joy and speechless awe. The infant Jesus radiates with a heavenly light while Simeon breaks out into his song “…my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2.30-32).
A closer look at the painting reveals that Mary is utterly enraptured by what is unfolding in front of her.
You would think after a visit from the angel (the Annunciation) and the entourage at Jesus’ birth (the Nativity) that Mary would be used to it. But she isn’t. Perhaps song and silence are the only two responses we have when we are face-to-face with the glory of God.
It is also worth noting that the only light in this picture is emanating from the Christ Child. The golden walls of the temple reflect his glory and everything else is held in shadow. All the focus of this painting and of this story is on the worship happening around the glory of the Christ child, worship in song and worship in silence.
I wonder what the glory of God sounds like to you. To me, God’s glory sounds like Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria,” Mississippi Mass Choir’s “Near The Cross,” and John Legend’s “Glory.” It also sounds like the space right after the final communion hymn and right before prayer where I wrestle with the magnitude of what has just happened – the visitation of God and the reconnection of the Body of Christ.
The next time you hear silence that sounds like glory, whisper “glory” to help you notice and mark it. Do the same with a song that particularly speaks to you. Making this a practice will help us notice when we have come face-to-face with God in our lives.
I firmly believe that God is constantly speaking to us and visiting us, far more than we care to acknowledge. Maybe our practice going forward can be mindfulness of all the ways God’s glory comes to us and invites us to worship.
*Barbara Brown Taylor. Learning to Walk in the Dark, 6.
[Image credit: Rembrandt (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons]
What music and art wakes you up to God’s glory?