Today is a day of worship for many. Today is a day of political and societal chaos for many. What is the connection between the two statements? The painting from El Greco can help us answer this question. The painting hangs in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It is called the Vision of Saint John. In it, we see the oppressed souls of those who have been waiting on the justice of God to shine through. The painting captures a mixed moment of agony, longing and satisfaction, as those who are in it look up to receive their white robes as rewards for their faithfulness to the truth in a faithless world.
The interesting thing is that the painting was “restored” in 1880 by its owner who cut off the top 175 cm of the painting which depicted the glorious revelation of the victorious Christ. What is left is that the individuals look up from their chaos to a blank heaven. This is, in many ways a picture of the dazed culture in which we live.
Faced with the reality of an increasingly divided and suffering world we seek to be faithful, we want to do what is right, we long for a transcendent hope and we look to the sky….to a blank and faceless sky, a sky that gives no answers. All that is left then is the murky darkness of the struggle with no overarching end in sight. We sing “imagine there’s no heaven” and then we curse heaven for not existing.
The painting speaks equally both to the religious and the secular persons. Today is a day of worship for many. But what does this mean? Many who enter churches today look to a faceless sky, a religion of do-good and be-the-best-you-can-be-isms. If there is no personal, conscious God to whom we look, ultimately, we are caught in an impersonal struggle and a hope that will never be fulfilled.
Which version of this painting do you live in? Are you like the like the modern version, raising your arms in the struggle and the hope, looking up to no-one and nothing in particular? Or do you see it the way it was originally meant to be, the way it was painted by the author himself? Someone once noted that pain without a story is just pain. But pain within a story is grace. We live in a world longing for a story, longing for grace. What we don’t realize is that we have had it all along in the unedited, original version that we have ourselves cut off.