I can only imagine the jaw-dropping experience it must have been for the curator and other staff of the New England museum as they stood, the morning after, March 18, 1990, before the empty frame still hanging on the wall. Rembrandt’s 1663 masterpiece, ‘Christ in the Storm’, had been stolen.
Searching around on the Internet for another of Rembrandt’s works, I came across photographs of the gorgeous piece and the stupendous story of its disappearance. Rembrandt’s renowned ability to cast light on the subjects of his painting from unapparent sources was evident even in the tiny photos available online. His style produced an eerie animation effect on the roiling waves of the sea, as it spitefully tossed the boat with its thirteen occupants: twelve at their wits end and one, calmly asleep, about to be roused.
The dramatic high-point of the painting for me, if a painting can be said to have one, is the disciple at the prow of the boat, desperately grasping the torn edge of the mainsail. His occupation being to hold it to the mast from which it had been jaggedly torn, separated, along with the rigging which now whipped and lashed wildly above the entire scene in mocking abandon.
To think that an activity that was such a normal part of the everyday life of most of Jesus’ disciples could also just as typically cast them into such an extreme circumstance was a compelling analogy. To these Middle-Eastern fishermen sailing this sea was ordinary life, and the Sea of Galilee was indeed known to go, rather unexpectedly, from glassy serenity to wild bucking tempest. Which is why, had it not been for Jesus’ agenda, they probably would have been safely put in to shore somewhere. How maddening it must have been for them, in light of these facts, to have Jesus calmly snoozing in the bottom of the reeling vessel!
Can you feel their pain? Have you ever been there? I have. Maritime imagery keep speaking, keep calling me out on the water where all my inadequacies become exposed: my lack of tacking maneuvers to sail into head-winds without breaking apart; where anchors seem baseless and rigging ropes whip mockingly useless way over my head and I am left feeling quite like the one disciple trying desperately, by hands and feet, to hold sail and mast together. These also, are the long ordinary times of our lives.
Ordinary time: that second lengthier period between Pentecost and Advent when the glorious truths gleaned and reinforced in the high, holydays of the church’s liturgical calendar, are tried and proven in the normal humdrum, or frantic extremities, of our daily lives. So, it’s normal for children to grow up and move away and for parents to grow old and require care and for our bodies to age and dare us to do today, things so easily accomplished yesterday, without painful consequence. Why then do these ordinary circumstances try us so? Could it be that we were designed for peace? For joy? For rest? Why the unrelenting laws of entropy, the poet’s prediction of mortal man’s expectation of trouble, — ‘as certain as the sparks fly upward’? Murphy’s observation turned law? Sin’s gravity.
But there is a Light shining always, though sometimes from Shrouded Source, that reveals the Truth that rests like ballast at the bottom of the boat of our ordinary times— it’s Emmanuel, for whom we waited; Paschal Lamb, for us crucified; Risen Lord, triumphant over death and Hades; Divine Paraclete, now accessible. Prone in our boat He waits to be invited, waiting to demonstrate that He does care, listening for the fervent or gentle beseeching, for the tug at the hem of His garment or the unabashed seizing and shaking of His shoulder that bears the government of nations and ages. God, in the midst of our ordinary days, invites us to ask, seek and knock — to pray.
Rembrandt chose, wisely perhaps, to freeze frame that moment just before the Lord of Creation commanded the elements of the storm to return to a peaceful calm. Yet how inspiring would it have been to see the whipping rope of that rigging fall gently down to hang limp, reachable and manageable, alongside the now steady mast. How comforting to have viewed the relieved expressions on the faces of the twelve, awestruck, as they observed unruly waves tucking their frothy tails between their aqueous limbs and slinking away to cavernous depths.
Even so, Lord of the winds and waves, speak to the storms of our ordinary lives: lasso the hounds of war breaking forth from the gates of our nations, threatening to consume our sons & daughters; transform deceived minds that foment chaos in hopes of unveiling a new world order or of revealing a religious messiah whose adherents slaughter the innocent and crucify the faithful. Mend our broken moorings and anchor us again in Truth that does not shape-shift with the times. Heal our storm-tossed bodies, stretched and strained beyond capacity’s design. Help us submit again to Creation’s rhythms and know Your Sabbath rest.
May the thieves of the masterpiece restore it to the viewing world and, more important, may You hear our cry in our ordinary days, as we cast the full weight of our expectation on Your revelation: Christ the King! in the Midst of Our Storms.