Good Friday Devotion along with Van Gogh.
Scripture: John 18:1-19:42
Painting: "At Eternity's Gate" by Vincent Van Gogh.
Vincent painted “At Eternity’s Gate” in 1890, the year of his death, based on a lithograph he had made some years earlier, entitled, “Worn Out.”
Of that lithograph, he wrote, “I was trying to say this in this print – but I can't say it as beautifully, as strikingly as reality, of which this is only a dim reflection seen in a dark mirror – that it seems to me that one of the strongest pieces of evidence for the existence of 'something on high' in which [the painter] Millet believed, namely in the existence of a God and an eternity, is the unutterably moving quality that there can be in the expression of an old man like that, without his being aware of it perhaps, as he sits so quietly in the corner of his hearth. At the same time something precious, something noble, that can’t be meant for the worms…”
“This is far from all theology,” Vincent continued, “simply the fact that the poorest woodcutter, heath farmer or miner can have moments of emotion and mood that give him a sense of an eternal home that he is close to” (Letter to Theo, #288).
Good Friday is a day of sorrow tinged with hope-against-hope – what many Eastern Orthodox Christians call “bright sadness.” John evokes this idea by portraying Jesus as poised throughout his ordeal; by weaving scriptural references throughout the story; and by having Jesus say, on the edge of death, “It is finished” – implying that what looks like chaos and defeat is actually part of a larger, hidden victory.
“At Eternity’s Gate” can help us catch sight another aspect of this “bright sadness” dimension of the crucifixion. Even in moments of great sorrow, when we are thoroughly “worn out,” when we feel isolated and alone in the shadows – in just such moments, if we look deeply, we can indirectly sense the light that every shadow involves.
A vision of a lonely, despairing old man can stir within us a recognition of his luminous dignity (“something precious, something noble,” as Vincent put it) that
points to the reality of “something on high.” The despair is still real, of course, and nonetheless devastating – but it isn’t the end of the story.
+ Today light a candle of bright sadness, praying, “God of comfort, be with us. God of mercy, forgive us. God of hope, reawaken us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
+ Do you know anyone who is “worn out”? A health worker, perhaps, or a teacher, or farm worker, or someone who has lost a loved one?
Find a way to reach out – not to fix anything, but simply to let them know that they’re on your mind, and that you’re there for them.
+ Do you agree with Vincent that images like “At Eternity’s Gate” can be occasions to glimpse a kind of “evidence” for “something on high”? Explore this question in a journal, or discuss it with family or friends over a meal or online.