October 2019 

“As a Christian we know why a work of art has value. Why? First, because a work of art is a work of creativity, and creativity has value because God is the Creator. The first sentence in the Bible is the declaration that the Creator created: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  - Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible

The other day I was chatting to some of our church members from St Mark’s Church, Mark Cross and a week later someone from St Denys who had all recently returned from trips to Russia.  During their time in Russia they had the opportunity to visit St Petersburg and went to the Hermitage Museum  where they were fortunate to see the painting by Rembrandt depicting the return of the prodigal son, a parable taught by Jesus to explain how his heavenly father welcomed back those who had strayed and lost their way in life.  The picture is of the occasion when the ‘lost’ son has returned. He is seen kneeling before his father with his clothes well-worn and in tatters.  The father, who appears kindly, stands with hands on his shoulders holding him secure and with affection.  Next the father and the younger son stands the old brother looking down on the scene in fine clothes, but appears unmoved and harsh at his brother’s return.  It is a powerful and moving picture that evokes deep feelings.

Art can have that impact on people, as they take time to look closely and ponder a canvas before them; it can draw them into deeper insight and understanding of something, taking them to new levels.  With this in mind, I am always struck by the psalmist’s declaration: 

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.  They have no speech; they use no words; no sound is heard from them.  Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” (Psalm 19 v1-4)

Creation itself, similar to a canvas, reveals the character and nature of God, it speaks to us without words, the wonder and majesty of a creator God.  If we are willing to consider and reflect on the beauty of the world we live in, we discover something of the mind behind it all.  The Creator has left his imprint on what he has made, he reveals the kind of being he is. 

Sometimes art reveals something about ourselves and this is very much the case with the picture seen by folk from our parishes mentioned above. What first drew the painting to my attention, was a Lent course based on this painting of Rembrandt by an author called Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest.  He wrote of his chance encounter with a reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son which took Nouwen on a long spiritual adventure and he wrote a book on his discoveries.

Traditionally, and as Jesus intended, the parable was a picture to explain the kindly, forgiving and generous welcome God, our Heavenly Father gave to all those who would return back.  It was not of a stern and angry God, but a warm and loving embrace followed by a party of joy.

Henri Nouwen reflected on the three main characters in the painting and could see himself in all three.  He was like the younger son, in the way that he had departed from God and followed his own self-interests, but with that deep need to return to his Father and be embraced and secure in his love.

He was like the older brother; in that he treated his younger brother with a measure of disdain.  He was judgemental and wouldn’t attend the party organised by his father to celebrate the return of his ‘lost’ son.  We too can be hard and judgemental with each other.  Then there was the Father, whose heart was no doubt broken, when his son left home, but full of joy, forgiveness and love as he is reunited with his son.  Here Nouwen suggests this is the kind of people we need to become in the way we are, and in the way, we deal with each other. In fact, we too are on a journey of transformation.  As Nouwen wrote: "Whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you have to realize that you are called to become the father.”

Each of us will have some favourite piece of art that helps us see life from a different perspective and all part of the rich tapestry of life which we see when we take time to look.

In our churches there are examples of art.  St Mark’s Church are enjoying their beautiful new chapel furniture crafted by a local expert and made from local seasoned oak; do take the chance to see it.  

And St Denys enjoys it’s Burne-Jones William Morris stained glass window as well as both medieval and modern art work.  And in a few weeks’ time (Saturday, 12th October, 10am-1pm) the church invites you to come and enjoy a morning taking in the beauty of our creativity, including the original Burne-Jones watercolour with the design for the St Denys window.