A sermon for the Midnight Eucharist on Christmas Eve
So large that it needed to be trimmed down to fit into its chosen venue for display; and that it now takes up an entire wall in the Rijksmuseum; Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Night Watch is one of the most famous paintings in the world. If you’re a Terry Pratchett fan, you’ll recognise it as being parodied on the cover of his novel of the same name, and if you’ve ever visited the Rijksmusem, like me, then you’ve probably got a playmobil version of its central figures, Frans Banninck Cocq, resplendent in black with a red sash, and Willem van Ruytenburch, dandyish in light yellow and with an enormous ostrich feather sticking out of his truly stupendous hat.
It’s known as The Night Watch not because it shows night watchmen – sentinels – about to go about their security duties. It actually depicts a company of army reservists who, from their dress, seem more likely to be engaged in a ceremonial parade than a police action; and it was created to be hung in their banqueting hall, which also provides a very rich flavour of the form their supposedly military activities took. Instead, it is now called The Night Watch because of the heavy coats of varnish and soot that, as they were added, dimmed and defaced its surface in the eighteenth century.
When cleaned, and it has recently been the object of a detailed conservation effort, the painting is no longer dim: cleaning has revealed the complexity of its alternation of light and shadow, that provides a sense of drama to its composition. In its highlighted areas, the colours and artistic focus are eye-catching. Almost ironically, too, the conservation has revealed a level of arresting detail in the dark portions of the painting, that can now be appreciated in much greater depth than when the whole painting appeared darkened.
By such clarity, and because of the effect of shadows cast within the painting by the artist’s representation of light that throws the dark into relief, we can now perceive movement and detail that were hidden before its conservation.
By the process of art, and then of the careful revelation of art’s intention, we can see both light and dark painted as they are. We can observe their contrasting tones, their underlying similarities, and the richnesses that each possess. We can find the beauty that is in both.
By the interaction of light and dark, we can see clearly the creativity of the realm of darkness: of its value to the creation of the whole painting … and this echoes the mythical biblical idea that God’s calling of all creation into existence began in the mystery and in the beauty of darkness.
By the metaphorical light of the scriptures, we can see God’s glory acting in such darkness, and we can perceive darkness’ own capacity to be the source of wonder and joy, far better than night watchmen – sentinels – can.
The Gospel of John describes a first glorious glimpse of light, in order to imagine the Word as a light who is both at the root of creation and by which the promise of creation’s goodness is being realised again. This light is beginning to show to us all the world – in both its light and its darkness – as it was meant to be seen; as it was meant to be; with its fine details and its beauty all visible in relief because of the one light brought into life, ‘the true light coming into the world’, the Word who became flesh and lived among us.
In the illumination of the Word, John says ‘we have seen his glory’ – the glory of God the Son, the glory fully shared and blindingly alike to the glory of the whole of God.
And by the illumination of the Word, we have also begun to truly see the world. To value light, and to realise the value God places on darkness: on the whole of all things which he has made.
John’s revelation is that God’s work of creation is completed and his work of conservation is accomplished, by the Word being now the source of this very clarity; by the Word being now the source of this chiaroscuro; by the Word having become, 2000-odd years ago, this child …
The Word who brought all creation to being before the dawn of time; who founded the earth; whose birth within the world we celebrate on this darkened night.
The Word by whose human life; by whose teaching, and acts of hope, and proclamation of God’s kingdom; the dimness and defacement of the world and the way we view it, can all be altered. So that, in light and darkness, with his fullness of grace and truth, we can perceive in detail God’s love for all his works.
This darkened night, we rejoice in the birth of Jesus, and revel in the greater awareness of God’s genesis of artistry and his care in salvation that is still dawning in our understanding, and by which we are increasingly eager to see all things: for in this clarity of our desires, our souls wait for the Lord, more than the night watch for the morning.