Preparation for Reconciliation…..The Return of the Prodigal Son, according to Rembrandt. Compiled by Fr.Kevin Walsh. Number 65

22 Mar


As we approach Holy Week, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is often celebrated in Groups using the 2nd Rite. This is a fantastic way to prepare for the Sacrament as a community and to celebrate it. In order to enter deeply into the Sacrament, we must give ourselves the opportunity to prepare for it….you might like to use Rembrandt’s famous spiritual painting as a guide…….



The theme of Rembrandt’s painting represents the spiritual homecoming of all humankind. It shows the prodigal son being welcomed back by’ his father. To one side, according to some experts, the elder broth­er looks on and in the background are other unknown figures, who, like ourselves, contem­plate the scene. Take some time, now, simply to enjoy the colours and shapes in this painting. Rembrandt uses a very limited palette of deep browns, ochres and white, but these are imbued with an inter­nal warmth which issues from the vibrant and evocative reds and the warm, golden tints. Throughout his life, Rembrandt pursued the mystery of light. In this picture he mingles light and darkness in a way that suggests a rising dawn, a burst of sun­light or more deeply, the mystery of a resurrection-picture already unfolding before our gaze. The central figures of the father and son form a glowing focus. The picture resembles a vaulted archway, lit from within, or a burning candle, held aloft to attract our attention to the mysterious drama being played out before our eyes. With a gentle, bending, gesture of love, the father welcomes back his son. Subtlety is the keynote to Rembrandt’s technique and the guide to understanding his image of God. This is a God who always takes the first initia­tive, who stoops to us, gently beckoning and holding us close. We need only have the insight to recognise the home to which we truly belong. Julian of Norwich has a wonderful phrase in her Showings, in which she describes God as ‘the astonishing familiarity of home’, a phrase very close to Jesus’s own words, when he says, ‘Make your home in me as I make mine in you’ (1n 15:4).

As you enter into the contemplation of this picture in your prayer, consider which person you identify with most closely. See how you feel about each char acter. Which one most resembles your own feelings at this time? Simply be aware of this and gently present those feelings to a God who paints and creates us on the great canvas of life, lovingly mixing our colours and applying brush strokes now with great delicacy and then again with exuberance as we emerge from the darkness of indecision and fear into the light of love and acceptance.


As we look more closely at the painting, we notice the details of the central group more clearly. The younger son is in an atti­tude of complete peace and rest on the bosom of his father, like a ship in harbour after a severe storm or a sleeping child at its mother’s breast. The son’s gar­ments are tattered and torn like the sails of a ship that has bat­tled with ocean winds and cur-rents. His sackcloth lies in deep and dark folds around his legs as darkness still clings to his being, which is only just unfolding in light. ‘God is Light and in him there is no darkness’ 1 Jn 1:5. The young man’s head is shaven, like that of a convict or one who has been afflicted with lice or disease. His flesh is bruised, his sandals broken, as they hang, useless, one discarded in the dust.

The son is oblivious of the bystanders’ stares, aware only of the presence of his father and the feeble heartbeat of the elderly man who holds him to his breast with a gesture of the hands unequalled in any other painting. He is able to sense his father’s special fragrance and the richness of his garments. His eyes are closed to savour this intimate time of mutual love. The two figures form one shaft of glowing light and their breath is mingled as their hearts beat in unison in the tent of meeting which Rembrandt has created out of a roof of crimson and columns of pure gold.


Standing in the background is the elder son who also represents each one of us. Less con­fident, and suspicious of such a prodigal love displayed by his ageing father, he hesitates on the verges of the action. Yet his cloak reflects the colours of the central group and he borrows dignity and confidence from their glowing unity. He hovers at the edge of the light and absorbs it almost involuntarily. Maybe you understand how he feels and would want to express sorrow for past resent­ments. Perhaps you would like to absorb more of Jesus’ light into your own life. Sometimes we find it hard to rejoice when others are fortunate and we envy their good fortune. Bitterness can result which needs the healing touch of the Father in the same way as the younger son needed it.


Our contemplation is now focused on that paternal fig­ure – the Prodigal Father: the one whose love is with­out condition. Rembrandt’s own preoccupation with old age and its wisdom, born of experience and suffering, has caused him to portray the father as an elderly man whose eyes are damp with sadness. His face is furrowed by years of searching for the son who is the beloved of his heart and the by of his declining years. Focus on the parent-God who embodies all the qualities of tenderness and strength that we associate with those who have given us life and cared for us (Show us the Father-Jn 14:8).

How gentle is this old man of the Jewish Ghetto! Rembrandt had contacts among Amsterdam’s Jewish community. He recognised them as the people of the Bible and gave them an equal respect that was uncommon in his day. He loved to draw them and did what no other painter had done so well. Painting Jewish characters in Jewish dress, he reminds us that all the bible stories had Hebrew ori­gins and that Jesus, himself, was a Jew. In fact, he is the first artist to present us with aguish Christ.

This tender old man is the figure of an Israelite patriarch. The matriarchs and patriarchs of ancient Israel were those who followed a God, gradually being revealed to them, in wisdom and compassion as well as in might and justice. His bleary eyes symbolise the love that turns a blind eye to our failings. Their tired gaze has eagerly sought us. The richness of the old man’s dress and his velvet yarmulke denote the richness of the grace which he dispenses as well as the material richness of the welcome he extended to the younger son.


The young man in the painting could almost be one of the homeless that we considered in our previous meditation. Sadly his like is to be seen all over the world. The young and vulnerable creep into alleys and entrances when night falls and the cold begins to bite. Night-time always accentuates Rembrandt’s message and here he prepares us for one of the most profound understandings of night. It was only when night had fallen that the powers of darkness were able to overcome, for a time, the power of Christ. Jn 13:30.

Yet the risen Christ is to be encountered amid the tombs at the dawning of a new day. The moment when the faint thread of dawn divides the most profound darkness, night and day are reversed. Night shines forth with splendour. It is truly blest, and more lovely than the dawn. (Paschal Preconium)

The two central figures in the painting are surrounded by night, the night in which the younger son has lived for most of his short adulthood. A twilight hovers around the edges of the figures. Other characters can be traced in the shadows. Maybe they are part of the scene. Maybe they are simply bystanders who contemplate this mystery in our company: the light of God’s eternal day dawns and a new creation for the son and for each one of us is realised.

It is in this setting that we begin to realise that Jesus, himself, is the only one who can effectively bring humanity back to the Father. There is a sense in which Jesus may almost be telling us the Prodigal story about himself. Although he could never have wasted the Father’s substance, St Paul tells us that Christ Jesus was prepared to lay aside his divinity, ‘assuming the condition of a slave.’ Phil. 2:6-11.

When we look again at the youthful figure that Rembrandt has painted, we see the sack-cloth of subjugation; the basic garment of humanity representing all the miseries of our world; famine, war and exploitation. The prophet Isaiah described the Lord’s servant as ‘a man to make people screen their faces; he was despised and we took no account of him.’ Isaiah 53.

This is the sort of night and the kind of darkness that Jesus overcomes. Julian of Norwich, writing more than three hundred years earlier than this picture was painted, seems to have had a wonderful insight into this truth. She might almost have painted this picture herself! ‘Adam’s old tunic, tight fitting, threadbare and short, was then made lovely by our Saviour, new, white and bright and forever clean, wide and ample, fairer and richer, (even) than the clothing I saw on the Father.’ Shewings, Long Text: Ch. 51.


As we now understand what is, per­haps, the most profound meaning of the painting, we remember the words at the beginning of John’s gospel: ‘No-one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, nearest to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.’Jn 1:18.

Rembrandt presents, for our con­templation, the relationship that is possible between humanity and God.

At the heart-centre of the Father/Son group is a heart shape indeed. Formed by the head of the son in the hollow of his father’s breast, it is almost impossible to tell where one living figure ends and the other begins. The chiaroscuro of that space blurs the edges between humanity and divinity so that we do not know, except in our own hearts, where either begins or ends, or, indeed where we, ourselves, begin or end, except in God. A cave is created, like the one into which Elijah Iah crept when he sought the face of God and was aston­ished to discover it in a gentle whispering breeze. A womb-space is evoked in which God gives birth to a new child of the Spirit, labouring ceaselessly in cre­ation until she can look on the face of her child. The child lies, newly born, on the heart of the mother, and is already free and wise beyond his years. These are the images which the heart of God may call forth. Jesus listens to the secrets of the heart of God in a gesture which bespeaks his unique intimacy. It is Jesus who literally shows us how the heart of God beats. ‘I tell you solemnly, the Son can do nothing by himself. He can only do what he sees the Father doing.’Jn 5:19.

The expression on the face of the son is one of complete peace. The peace that surpasses understanding is here revealed before our wondering gaze. The custom­ary Jewish greeting, Shalom, is transformed into the hallmark of perfect accord between God and humanity. ‘A peace the world cannot give, this is my gift to you.’ Jn 14:27. Jesus made it possible for us to be as close to God as he is. His home is our home. The place where Jesus dwells is always nearest to the Father’s heart.


One cannot look at the feet of the younger son without wondering about his Journey, not merely the journey home, but all the wandering and squandering that have characterised his misspent youth. These are the feet of one who has suffered much on life’s pilgrimage. It is not too difficult to imagine some of the hardships of the journey and to travel on the same road with him.

These are the feet his mother tickled when she washed them. These feet played happily on his father’s farm, chasing playmates and dreams. They rode away, richly shod, when, as a young man, he was bent on seeing the world, and now they return, torn and bleeding, trudging wearily towards the familiar landscape of his childhood home. Rembrandt has created a strange harmony between the rags the young man wears and his bare feet. We can feel the sensitivity of the artist, above all, in his por­trayal of the feet and hands in this picture, the bent posture of one who has been, quite literally, brought to his knees.


The prodigal father, reaching out loving hands to his son, reveals what is probably one of the most astonishing features in any west­ern painting. The hands that draw him close are not a pair. They represent all that can be uttered about human existence and, at the same, time they plumb profound depths about the truth of our God.

They lie on the shoulders of the son like the light yoke that Jesus describes as his own. They are both male and female at the same time. The hand on our right, the father’s left hand, is a masculine hand and the hand of a labourer, perhaps the God who created all and holds everything in being; the right hand is a femi­nine hand and may represent the mothering and nurturing of a God who brings us to birth and touches our hearts with tenderness.

They remind us of the words of the letter to the Ephesians as they try to describe God… ‘and then, you will have strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth, so that, you may be filled with the utter fullness of God.’ (Eph 3:19). You may wish to dwell, in prayer, on the different qualities that these hands represent. One is sinewy and work-torn, with dirty, broken nails and a muscular wrist and thumb. The other is more delicate with long, sensitive fin­gers, a narrow wrist and well-manicured nails. Masculine/feminine is not the only interpretation. First world/developing world may also spring to mind.


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Posted by on March 22, 2012 in Uncategorized


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