The choice of Rembrandt's unparalleled, magisterial painting The Return of the Prodigal Son for the above banner was one I made from the moment of the blog's conception, and while it was half a year before my friend Patrick made it look less like a cut-and-paste job and more professional and attractive, I am happy that it has always cast its shadow over the goings-on here. In thinking of an image or piece of art as a visual representation or communication of what I hoped would happen on the blog, Rembrandt's masterpiece was quickly the only candidate before me. The reason is simple: When I was in Russia two years ago, while exploring the hundreds of rooms of The Hermitage in St. Petersberg, I came upon a handful of Rembrandt's works spread out over his career. Particularly poignant was the placement of The Return exactly adjacent to his Abraham and Isaac, a kind of spatial intersection of Scripture's central stories of fathers and sons, of obedience and mercy, of promise and fulfillment.
The effect of the two paintings was, in every sense, quite literally overwhelming -- I felt the need to sit down -- but I could not take my eyes off of them, especially The Return. A professor told me that in preparation for Henri Nouwen's book on the parable, Nouwen traveled to The Hermitage to see the painting in person, and spent an entire day, 12 hours straight, sitting in front of the canvas without moving, studying the faces and emotions and actions of it all as the sun's light drifted in varying degrees across the face of it. Having been in the same spot, surrounded by tourists and visitors from all nations, enveloped in the hazel light of a summer Russian sun breathing gently from right to left across brother, room, and father and son -- Nouwen's enraptured stillness makes perfect sense.
For Easter this year, I included an image of the painting along with a poem I wrote in reflection on it. For me, and for this blog, the painting as a whole (and the snippet captured for the banner) speaks in a thousand truthful ways of the gospel: father and son, forgiveness, welcome, initiative, freedom, family, hospitality, celebration, embrace, exile and restoration, humility, mercy, grace, compassion, pain and loss, sin and deceit, redoubtable pride, jealousy, rebuke, hope, surprise, new life. We are always someone in the picture; at times we think we are other than who we are. The gospel bursts forth and proclaims itself in all its multifarious glory and beauty in every second we give to meditation and discernment of this inimitably depthless work.
And if something of that power -- one ounce, one scrap -- finds it way into the words I scramble together every few days for reading together on this blog, then I will have succeeded beyond all expectation, and Rembrandt's place as head of proceedings will have been wisely chosen indeed.