Rembrandt's angels, and ours
Bringing a spiritual perspective to daily life
Boston's Museum of Fine Arts is hosting a major exhibition of Rembrandt's etchings ("Rembrandt's Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher") through Jan. 18. As a student of the Bible, I was captivated by Rembrandt's many etchings of biblical characters and stories, especially his depiction of angels.
Artists often portray angels as winged beings who appear out of heaven's clouds, bathed in light. But Rembrandt's angels do more than appear. They act vigorously to comfort and save. The etching "Abraham's Sacrifice" pictures Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac, because he believes this is required to prove his devotion to God. Rembrandt's angel doesn't just appear to Abraham and tell him that's not what God wants. It wraps its arms around Abraham and forcibly restrains him from doing this evil thing.
The Bible tells us that on the night before he was to be crucified, Jesus prayed that this "cup" (the humiliation and agony of crucifixion) might be spared him. As he prayed, "there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him" (Luke 22:43). Rembrandt's etching "The Agony in the Garden" pictures this angel strengthening Jesus - kneeling by him, hugging him, holding him up in its arms, lifting him up.
As Mary Baker Eddy, this newspaper's founder, wrote in her book "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," angels are not beings with human form and feathery wings, but they are "pure thoughts from God" that strengthen and save (page 298). They are "spiritual intuitions, pure and perfect." They are "the inspiration of goodness, purity, and immortality" (page 581).
That description of angels has made me think more deeply about the 300 or so Bible passages that mention angels. An early mention of angels is when "the angel of the Lord found" a runaway slave - a pregnant, friendless Egyptian woman named Hagar, who had been mistreated. The angel assures Hagar that God will bless her with two of the things esteemed most highly in ancient life: a son and a great lineage. The angel also gives her divine guidance: Return home.
Hagar's encounter with the angel changes her, and she does return home - not fearfully as a runaway slave, but with the dignity conferred by a new view of herself, of her future, and of God's tender care for her. This new awareness of God's care prompts her to call Him by a new name: "You are the God who sees me." And Hagar says of herself, "I have now seen the One who sees me" (Genesis, chapter 16, New International Version). Some years later, Hagar is freed from slavery, and Arabs trace their lineage through her son, Ishmael.
I have found it helpful to remember that the angel that changed Hagar's life was not a feathery messenger. It was "pure thoughts from God." Such thoughts, replacing fear and despair, change our view of ourselves and our prospects. While our thoughts are fixed on the divine, we cannot be stymied by the harsh experiences of life.
Years ago, shortly after I separated from my husband whom I later divorced, I hurt my ankle at the gym. I lived in a duplex apartment and slept downstairs. By morning my ankle was so sore that I couldn't make it up the staircase; all I could do was sit on the bottom step and weep. Eventually I called a friend who agreed to come and help me. I also prayed. As I turned to God for help, I realized that what hurt most was that I was alone and stuck in the basement, and I realized that I had been feeling this way for months, long before I hurt my ankle. I yearned to abandon the notion that I was a lonely young woman whose life was a mess. I longed to understand that what the Bible says is true: that God is Love itself and that He cares for us.
As I prayed that day, you might say that I felt hugged by an angel - by a tangible sense of God's love and care for us all, which replaced the self-pity and fear. When my friend arrived, I was already upstairs, eager to share with her what I had learned: that in whatever lonely basement we may find ourselves, God's loving angel thoughts are there, ready to lift us out as they did me.