A spirit of death hangs over our neighbourhood in Holland this easter. Flags fly at half mast from houses and farm buildings. Gloom, fear and anger dominate many domestic conversations. Rumours circulate of farmers going bankrupt. Shoppers horde milk and supplies. Red and white plastic tapes cordon off farms from visitors. Many children are unable to attend school or visit friends. Thousands of cows, sheep and pigs have been destroyed in our immediate area. Not a live animal is to be found in the neighbouring village where foot-and-mouth was first detected. The fields are ominously empty – except for one covered with white crosses, inscribed individually with the names of a lost herd.
Crudely handpainted banners line the motorway screaming protest at government actions. Some accuse the minister of agriculture of mass murder. Others compare him to Hitler. Police and military are deployed to check traffic coming in and out of the sealed-off zone most affected by the foot-and-mouth epidemic, of which our town of Heerde is the epicentre. The fate of 115,000 healthy cattle in this zone hangs in the balance. Yet while Holland’s situation is disastrous, England’s predicament is much worse. Half a million cattle are expected to be sacrificed to allow the remaining cattle population to survive.
The awful wretchedness of death has been thrust in our faces this easter. It is not pretty.
But it is this ugly reality of death which easter addresses head-on. Some of us have been looking this weekend at the easter story through the eyes of Rembrandt, the 17th century Dutch artist. His prints and paintings were the closest thing to the Jesus film in his day. Uncluttered by the pious sentimentality of much contemporary religious art, Rembrandt’s works also confronted his audiences with grisly realities of the trials and tortures of the passion week. He captures in one print the moment when Jesus himself balked at death, in Gethsemene. As he sweated drops of blood, he prayed for
the Father to spare him the agony of this cup. Jesus is being comforted and strengthened by an angelic visitation, while a few sparse strokes outline three sleeping disciples, oblivious to the impending ordeal. A dark concentration of detail in the background depicts Judas the traitor approaching with a squad of soldiers.
Rembrandt imagines himself on the scene in several artworks. One of his largest etchings portrays Pilate asking the crowd if they want Jesus or Barabbas. Rembrandt’s own face peers out from the crowd directly at the viewer, as if looking to see what our choice will be. In another impressively large etching, Rembrandt places himself on top of a ladder leaning against the cross, helping to lower the lifeless body of Jesus, with Joseph of Arimathea supervising. The artist’s face betrays uncomprehending sorrow, an emotion reflected in the faces of other bystanders.
Uncomprehending sorrow. Sad bewilderment. Empty hopelessness. That is how many in our area are experiencing this easter. Sometimes we experience it too when our hopes are dashed, our expectations crushed.
Yet Rembrandt also painted and etched on numerous occasions the moment of revelation when the two disciples suddenly recognised the risen Christ as their guest in Emmaus; and also doubting Thomas’s encounter with the risen Lord. The staggering implications of this most unexpected turn of events could only be expressed in expressions of greatest joy. He is risen!! HE IS RISEN!! This was world shattering – no, world restoring – news. God had been at work all the time through the dark moments. The crucifixion had been God’s masterstroke. He had had to defeat death through death. Good Friday now took on a whole new meaning. Luther called this unseen work of God in times of apparent disaster, ‘hidden grace’.
With this easter perspective, we can say with Habakkuk (who had had his own complaints to express to God about the unfairness of life), “Though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will be joyful in God my Saviour.” [3:17,18]