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Rembrandt painting a powerful testimony for Easter

Every Easter our church participates in the 8 a.m. Cache Valley Community Easter Celebration held in the USU amphitheater. The service offers worshippers from various churches the opportunity to gather to pray, sing worship songs, hear an Easter message and listen to someone’s testimony of faith. Often, the testimony is the highlight of the service.

For Christians, their personal testimony of how God has done a miraculous work in their lives is important. They testify of the work God does not only when they come to faith but also every day. Testimonies are often spoken, sometimes written and always lived. One of the most powerful testimonies I’ve seen is from the Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn in his painting, “Raising of the Cross.”

Most consider Rembrandt to be one of the greatest painters of all time. Vincent van Gogh wrote, “Rembrandt is so deeply mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language. Rembrandt is truly called a magician… that’s not an easy calling.” While the names of his paintings may not be familiar, his influence is beyond measure.

Biographers have suggested that the extreme personal loss that Rembrandt experienced made him able “to empathize with aspects of the human condition.” This is seen in how he is able to express emotion in the faces of those he paints. What is unique about the “Raising of the Cross” is how Rembrandt has placed himself within the painting to offer us his personal testimony.

If you are unfamiliar with the painting, it is set on Good Friday showing Christ’s cross being raised up. Rembrandt’s use of light makes the cross with Christ the focus. There are only two other figures in the painting whose faces are visible: a man at the foot of the cross in a blue beret, and another man wearing a turban. Why does Rembrandt include these? As a testimony of what Christ’s crucifixion meant for him.

The white-turbaned commander behind the crucifixion scene resembles self-portraits by Rembrandt. It depicts not only one who is looking out as an observer but it also seems to offer a mirror into his own mind. This man is an observer; he is not fully engaged in the reality of the injustice and is untouched by the cross. Here Rembrandt seems to be commenting on how this is where we all must start our own journey – as observers.

With the image of the man in the blue beret, he brings us to the foot of the cross. Rembrandt clearly intends us to recognize this to be a self-portrait. However, looking at him is likely to make us uncomfortable for now, rather than being an observer, he has moved to be an active participant in Christ’s death. We may wonder why. Our answer is found in Paul’s thoughts in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.”

History tells us that Rembrandt had many flaws; his life story is a tragedy. Nonetheless, in his art, Rembrandt testifies of knowing that it was his sins that nailed Christ to the cross. By placing himself at the foot of the cross, helping to raise it up, he testifies of his active rather than passive involvement in Christ’s death. Here we see the influence that the Dutch reformers had on Rembrandt. He realizes that we are all wretched, helpless sinners who can only find forgiveness, grace, mercy, and the righteousness of Christ at the cross.

Rembrandt’s painting offers us a clear testimony of the Christian’s hope at Good Friday. For it is at the cross that Christ redeemed sinners. At the cross, Christ purchased a people for himself. At the cross, Christ took our sin and stood in our place. At the cross, Christ bore the wrath of God that we deserved. Like Rembrandt, we too are to stand at the foot of the cross. It was Christ’s love for me that took him to the cross; it was my sin that held Him there. Remember, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

At the cross, Christ purchased you an abundance of grace. On Easter morning, in the resurrection, we receive the promised eternal life. Maybe when we look at Rembrandt’s painting we should see ourselves at the foot of the cross as a sinner in need of a Savior.

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