Leaping from Despair into Hope: The Lesson of Rembrandt’s Resurrection for Today’s Troubled World
Today, the world finds itself moving through a turbulent transformation between two systems. Collapsing at a faster rate every day are the foundations of a failed imperial world order defined by zero-sum thinking, consumerism and materialism which has defined our existence for decades. The question is now: will the new world system take the form of a new era of global empire, unmitigated war between faiths and a prolonged dark age OR might it take the form of the beautiful multi-polar world order defined by win-win cooperation between all of the nations, faiths and cultures of the world?
Throughout his life, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) continuously returned to the axiom-breaking theme of the famous biblical story of the ‘Supper at Emmaus’ in order to convey the powerful transformative “moment” of discovery in between the two states of mind of 1) the belief in the death of Christ and the end to his life’s mission and 2) the state of renewed faith in the immortal hope represented by the image of the resurrection. While this lesson is taken from the Christian matrix, it’s universal characteristic provides a lesson for people of all cultures who seek to bring a better world into being.
Before jumping to an analysis of some beautiful paintings, it would be necessary to summarize ever so briefly the story of the Dinner at Emmaus.
The Dinner at Emmaus and The Importance of Christianity in World History
Featured in the New Testament Gospels of Luke and Mark, Jesus is invited to eat with two of his disciples (Luke and Cleopas) in the town of Emmaus. This wouldn’t be anything exceptional, except for the fact that Jesus had been violently crucified on the cross and entombed days earlier. Neither Luke nor Cleopas recognize their mentor who has been resurrected after being entombed for three days and it is only upon breaking bread with this stranger that they make their discovery just as Christ vanishes miraculously into light.
Whether you are a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Confucian, Hindu, Buddhist or other, the lesson conveyed by this biblical story and especially Rembrandt’s artistic treatment has a universal value for the simple reason that Christ’s life and mission represented a moral power of changewhich had the unique capacity to undo the foundations of the Roman Empire. This movement accomplished this miraculous feat not through military force, money or any other Hobbesian notion of power, but merely by tuning the hearts and minds of a suppressed people to the power of forgiveness, loving all including one’s enemies, and adhering to one’s conscience before all “political norms of acceptable behaviour” demanded by the Roman oligarchy.
One can imagine how disheartened Christ’s followers were to see that light of hope snuffed out under the suffocating weight of the world’s largest and most evil of empires whose unchallenged power had extended to Asia, Africa and all Europe. One can easily imagine what an existential crisis overwhelmed the hearts of these early followers of Jesus’ Gospel. Were they just naive fools to believe in a better world and a loving Creator when such evil could dominate the world? How powerful and electrifying was the idea that the sacrificed leader of this movement actually succeeded in defeating the one thing which even the most powerful of emperors and kings could not escape? If this were possible, then perhaps the material power of the Empire could be defeated after all and perhaps the ideals of Christ’s life and mission were worth having faith in too.
Over the coming centuries, the Roman oligarchy slowly learned that regardless of how many Christians it burned alive, or threw into the mouths of wild animals for the entertainment of the mob, the movement only grew in numbers. This continued to the point that the Empire was forced to attempt to co-opt the movement by Romanizing it and infusing imperial, pagan practices into its governing structures slowly suffocating the spirit of Christ’s message in favour of the formal structures of the “word” of the book as interpreted by an approved “priesthood” beholden to an oligarchical class.
Amidst this tendency to corruption and decay, Christ’s spirit was periodically re-awakened from time to time in the form of honest souls who broke from formalization to “walk the walk” and live according to their consciences. These courageous souls who “broke from the mould” include such names as St. Augustine of Hippo, Alcuin, Charlemagne, Dante Alighieri, Nicholas of Cusa, Erasmus, Thomas More, and even Rembrandt van Rijn. Were it not for their efforts to renew the spirit of Christianity by enflaming the kindling for new Renaissances, Europe would likely still be living under the conditions of the medieval dark age, or worse.
One can also argue that were it not for this transformative and miraculous story of reincarnation, then Christianity would have merely been just another one of many Jewish sects that tried nobly to bring substance to the darkness of a war-ridden world… but ultimately failed.
Rembrandt’s Renaissance Challenge
It is no coincidence that Rembrandt’s famous 1648 rendition of the theme of the ‘Dinner at Emmaus’ was painted during the year that the great Peace of Westphalia was finalised in Europe. This Treaty not only ended the 30 Years War that destroyed generations of Europeans in an endless revengist bloodbath of Protestantism vs Catholicism, but also created a new basis of international law by establishing the system of modern nation states premised around the principles of forgiveness, and the agapic principle of the “Benefit of the Other”. In the modern age, a correlate to this principle is found beautifully in the policy of “win-win cooperation” expressed in China’s New Silk Road which itself emanates from Confucian principles of “Tianxia”.