The Beauty of Now


Rembrandt’s paintings are so often moving, and speak well of the Dutch genius who created them. When many of his contemporaries sought to portray people and events with greater realism, even if with much feeling, Rembrandt often put the ‘feeling’ side of his work first.

Rembrandt shows his sensitivity to an aspect of the anticipated birth of John the Baptizer. John’s parents were old and despaired about ever having a son who might carry on their name. The artist depicts the aged priest, Zachariah, leaning on a young attendant upon hearing that Mary has arrived. He portrays Elizabeth as also showing her years as she greets her relative with warm regard. Though Mary bears within her womb the holy child of God, she appears humbled in the presence of Elizabeth, perhaps awed at how the grace of God could touch both of their lives in such an unexpected way. Light shines on the two of them, just as it should, given the way that Luke highlights this holy aspect of their shared story. Thankfulness and quiet joy suffuse the scene like the warm light at its center.

Waiting and anticipation are themes we associate with the beautiful season of Advent. In one sense, these two words suggest we already know what we are anticipating, for what we are awaiting. By contrast, Luke’s story about the Visitation suggests a variation on those themes. “Expect the un-expected,” it seems to say, to us who live a multitude of centuries later. And this is especially hard for us to do, in a culture that is so dependent upon the precise measurement of time, and upon the predictability of events in the natural order of things.

Let’s notice this about Elizabeth and Mary, and about John the Baptist who is not yet born. Luke portrays them as living in the moment, as living in God’s time rather than simply in human calendar time. When Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, John leaps in her womb. Luke then says that Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaims with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, Mary, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Neither John nor Jesus are yet born, and so neither mother has yet received the assurance and peace that will come from seeing them safely delivered. And yet, in this moment, both women are filled with joy ~ joy about the fulfillment of God’s promises!

Elizabeth’s son, John, and Mary’s son, Jesus, would never be closer to the two women. And, in Luke’s telling, their quiet joy reflects their awareness of this, that now, in this moment, God is truly present, imparting grace and fulfilling promises. The same is true for us.


Rembrandt van Rijn: The Visitation (1640), Detroit Institute of Arts {many images online}

See Luke 1:41-42: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Context: Luke 1:39-56. This Gospel reading is appointed for the 4th Sunday in Advent, Year C, which features the Visitation of Mary to her relative, Elizabeth.

The Beauty of His Continuing Presence


The most well-known painting of ‘Doubting’ Thomas and his encounter with the Risen Jesus may be the one by Caravaggio. And yet, paintings like his are misleading, as is referring to Thomas as ‘the doubter.’ Why? Because paintings and labels like these lead us to overlook or misperceive some very important details within John’s Gospel story. Rembrandt’s painting of the event (above) helps us notice the difference.

As John tells it, we first find ten of the disciples hiding behind locked doors out of fear. Consider how, during Jesus’ ministry with them, he had more than once told them to fear not. And at the Last Supper, he had given them ‘his peace.’ Yet, rather than remember what Jesus had shared with them, as well as his miracles, all of them have succumbed to fear. Even though Mary Magdalene that morning had already told them that she had seen the Lord. How can these details be squared with any other description than that the ten behind locked doors are doubting, as well?

Second, observe how John’s Gospel describes Jesus’ initial appearance to the ten, when he finds them fearful and doubting. At first, they do not recognize him. It is only after Jesus shows them his hands and his side that they then recognize him, and rejoice at his presence. When they see him, then they believe, and not before. So, once again, Jesus leaves them with his peace. And now, he gives them his Spirit.

Notice what the ten say to Thomas when he then arrives: “We have seen the Lord” ~ the very same witness Mary had earlier offered to them without having had much effect. Thomas naturally replies by saying something like this: ‘Look, I haven’t see him, like you guys just did— and so, just like you, I won’t be able to believe until I see him, either.” Thomas’ statement to them therefore does not need to be heard as him setting the conditions for his belief. It may simply be a practical prediction of fact.

We need to be equally perceptive about John’s description of Jesus’ later visit to that same locked room. It is a week later when Jesus returns to the eleven, among whom Thomas is present. It is vital to notice what Jesus says to Thomas. It’s even more important to observe how John describes Thomas’ response. Jesus invites Thomas to touch him and to believe. But the Gospel does not say that Thomas has any physical contact with Jesus. It does not tell us that he reaches out, or that he makes an effort to touch Jesus. Instead, and just as Jesus gives him credit for doing, he sees, and then he believes. Just like the prior experience of the other ten!

Rembrandt’s image, like the painting by Carl Bloch, is faithful both to what John tells us, and to what he does not. Observing this, we should refer to this story in John’s Gospel in a different way ~ ‘the doubting disciples, and how they all came to believe.’


The above image is of Rembrandt’s (I think mis-titled) painting, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. This post is based on my homily for Easter 2, April 28, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.