Here it is. Rembrandt’s masterpiece, The Return of the Prodigal Son, which hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. He had lost nearly everything he had by the time he painted it. Nearly broke, he would die two years after its completion.
I think about Rembrandt’s magnum opus near the beginning of every Lenten season. Its themes leap off the canvas: Repentance, Sonship, Love, Forgiveness, the list goes on. But the one that stands out most to me, as we begin this Lenten journey to the Cross and the Empty Tomb, is Identity. Sacred Identity.
Have you ever wondered why the ashes imbedded on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday – you know, the ones that accompany that jarring promise, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return – have you ever wondered why such a morbid sentiment forms itself in the shape of a Cross?
I’m sure there’s some deep theological and historical precedent for this, but for me it calls to mind the chasm that stands between the “me” that will inevitably return to dust when I die or when Christ comes again – the shells of our temporary identities that won’t seem to matter much in the Kingdom – and the me that has Risen with Christ, our sacred selves that at last will reflect the glory of God.
There are two men kneeling at the feet of the Father in Rembrandt’s painting. On the surface, they appear one in the same, and in order to separate them, you really need to know the story, you have to be on the inside.
One of these men is a pauper, a scoundrel who’s run out on his family and squandered away all of his money on wild living. Look at him. His tunic patched, his shoes worn through, his balding head betraying him sickly. He is a failure.
Hidden beneath the first man is another one quite different from the first. This one is the beloved son of a longing Father who’s thrilled beyond words to welcome him home. We wouldn’t know this son, nor would we ever be able to discern him apart from the One whose arms are wrapped so tightly around his shoulders; the One in whom he rests. It’s the Father who shows his beloved child for who he really is.
That’s how our sacred identity works. When we stand on our own, our tattered selves cling to characteristics that will one day return to dust. Our careers, our relationship statuses, personal struggles, and our inner desires, none of which will make it to the other side of the Resurrection. This self is dust, and to dust it will return.
Lent is a season of intense reconnection with our sacred selves – the us whose identity is found only in Christ, and is only visible when we fix our gaze on Jesus. It’s a season where we rend the futility of personal reformation and moral improvement, and see the Spirit’s work for what it really is: The complete and total rebirth of our sacred selves. When we know who we are, the rest tends to resolve itself.
So who is he? This road-weary man, ragged and kneeling in Rembradt’s masterpiece? Who are we? It all depends on who you’re looking at. Have a sacred and blessed Lent!
About the Author
Josh Hatcher is a devoted husband and father, hopeless wonder-junkie, and Senior Pastor of Historic Trinity Lutheran Church – an open and caring, radically Christ-centered, deeply sacramental and sometimes eclectic ministry in the heart of Soulard.