One way to get to grips with the stories from the gospels is to imagine ourselves in them. With his painting “Storm on the sea of Galilee”, Rembrandt did just that. He was just twenty-seven when he painted this picture, his only seascape. It is difficult to imagine its impact as it is over five feet high, and more than four feet wide. Sadly, you cannot go to see it for yourselves. No one knows where it is – it was stolen from a museum in 1990.
Rather than attempting to imagine what a fishing boat would have been like in Jesus’ time, Rembrandt paints a contemporary fishing boat menaced by a storm. He depicts human frailty in the presence of the forces of nature. The first thing that strikes us is the contrast between the light and the darkness. The mast divides the picture into two halves, the sun breaking through the clouds in the top left and the bottom right almost in darkness. We find ourselves thrown off balance as the boat leans at 45 degrees to the water. The panic-stricken disciples struggle to retain control of the boat as a huge wave crashes over its bow, ripping the sail in half and sending it perilously close to the rocks. But their best efforts are not enough. Not all the disciples, of course, were fishermen. Some are sitting at the other end of the boat. One is vomiting over the side. We know that we, too would have been terrified. Previous paintings of the scene all depicted Jesus serenely asleep. Here, he has just woken up and he alone remains calm. At the moment of his waking the clouds are breaking. There is also a light shining from him, bathing those gathered around him. Some are looking at him, some, have their faces turned away.
The painting brings out our helplessness in the presence of the forces of nature. We have experienced just a little of that this weekend with the stormy winds. I imagine anyone coming back to the UK on a ferry would find this reading too close to their experience for comfort. But other aspects of the natural world have humbled us in the last two years. For the first time in living memory, we have been at the mercy of a threat that has been not the result of war or human folly, but a virulent disease that found us unprepared. Those who believed in the power of science to rescue us from the assaults of nature have been chastened. The early months of the pandemic had us locked into isolation, our freedoms to go to work, to meet our family and friends and to travel were curtailed in a way that weeks before we would not have thought possible. Scientists developed vaccines to mitigate the effects of the disease, but then the virus mutated, becoming more virulent, and once again we were locked down.
Finally, the virus has mutated into a form which is less severe but more contagious. It was a close call. A mutation more severe and more contagious could have been disastrous. And now we are inching our way towards a stable situation, learning to live with hopefully low levels of infection. For the moment at least.
Of course, I accept that other narratives are possible. We are still too close to the events for a final analysis.
Although the pandemic seemingly came upon from nowhere, there had been warnings signs. In 2009 there was the swine flu pandemic. In 2016 Bill Gates predicted we would have another pandemic within 10 years. We assumed that it would never happen and failed to plan.
The sensible thing to do after coming through a crisis is to ask ourselves what we should do differently. We were warned that a pandemic might come, but we sleepwalked into it. Similarly, we are in danger of sleepwalking into the effects of climate change. The two are not independent. As desertification forces people to migrate to cities, overcrowding produces ideal conditions for viruses to spread. People whose harvests fail search for food in new habitats, encountering diseased animals and potentially catching viruses new to human beings. Everything is connected.
A better model for the way we can live on the planet is described in the first reading from Genesis. It tells how God created Adam first, and then created the garden for Adam’s home, for his food, and to delight him with its beauty. Then God created the animals and Adam was giving the task of naming them, each and every one. God and Adam each had their part to play. To name something is to consider its individuality, to capture its essence in a word. Adam’s relationship with the animals was not dominance or using them for his own ends (there is no suggestion at this stage that they were food) but he lives alongside them, appreciating them in all their variety and delighting with God in their creation.
The Bible also warns us about hubris – the sin of thinking that we are ourselves powerful and don’t need God. The story of the tower of Babel describes how people thought they could build a tower so high that it could reach to heaven. God responded by creating different languages, so that there would be confusion, and the project abandoned. This was not a small-minded God, jealous of his own status, but a God who cares enough to stop us in our tracks when we are bringing destruction upon ourselves. Our modern hubris is the belief that technology will always find a way to bail us out. Modern science has helped us to survive in so many ways, from predicting the weather to growing hybrids of crops that can survive in less than optimum conditions. But along with that has grown an attitude that nature is something to be tamed, to be vanquished. We seek to dominate, not cooperate.
Where is God in all this? The answer is that he often seems to be sleeping in the boat, impervious to our calls of distress. But he alone has the power to tame the forces of the natural world and asks us to co-operate with him.
Rembrandt asks us to consider our response to Jesus. The immediacy of the painting draws us into the story. If you could see clearly enough to count all the people in the boat you would find not 13, but 14. Looking straight at us is a disciple, his cap in one hand, and the other holding a rope. He has the features of Rembrandt himself, recognisable from self-portraits he had painted. By putting himself into the painting, he asks us to do the same. Where would you be? With the seasoned fishermen, desperately trying to fight the storm, attempting to control their surroundings. They have not realised that in their own efforts it’s a hopeless task – they need Jesus’ help. Or would you be feeling discouraged and fearful, looking away from Christ? Or is that you, your eyes fixed on Christ, the light shining in the darkness, with your hand on his shoulder, knowing that he has the power to save?
The painting captures the instant that Jesus says “Peace be still” as the clouds break and the light floods back. Moments later the waves will drop, the sea will be calm and the disciples will be safe. We are given the choice. Do we strive by ourselves, do we give up in despair or do we shake the shoulder of Jesus and beg him to save us.