In the early 1970s, the National Gallery in London had just purchased a small, exquisite portrait attributed to Rogier van der Weyden, the great 15th century Flemish artist.
It’s a picture of a scholar, dressed in furs against the cold. He is hunched over at an odd angle in three quarter profile, as if he were just about to tumble out of the picture frame. He holds a parchment manuscript in his hands. He has beautiful hands, long-fingered and elegant, a triumph of the artist’s draughtsmanship and painterly skill.
The artist has positioned the document so that we viewers can see what the scholar sees, lettering so finely detailed and focused that it’s almost legible. But it’s not, any more than the man’s own quizzical expression. The document rivets his attention. His eyes are large, deep, hooded. He stares with a gaze so intense that you can see the veins throbbing at his temple. At the corner of his mouth, you can see a small crowfoot wrinkle, almost like a scar. We can see him, but he won’t see us. He is oblivious to us as our puzzled gaze invades his private space. It feels uncomfortable to look so closely at him, almost an invasion. He is at once fully exposed, and impassively removed.
For who knows how long, the scholar’s guarded severity was all that you could experience when examining this picture. The background behind him was painted pitch dark. But I am told that just after it arrived in London, the gallery had it cleaned, and discovered that the black background behind the figure was added later, and not by the artist’s hand. When the restorers removed the black layer, they uncovered a fabulous image that lost to the viewer’s eye for centuries.
What became visible was a casement window, positioned just above and to the left of the sitter’s shoulder. It has been swung open to reveal a fantastic miniature landscape, brilliantly executed in the exquisitely detailed, enameled style so characteristic of Flemish painting at the time. Through the window, in the foreground, you can just make out two tiny travelers on horseback, riding eastward on a country road. They pass a neatly tilled field and a patch of still water, on which a pair of swans serenely floats. A comfortable farmhouse is settled on the far side of the little lake, its shape reflected in the still water. Another couple stands at the door of the house, as if to greet and welcome the travelers. And beyond, receding into the distance, you see another traveler on horseback, following a winding road up to the top of a gentle hill. Horse and rider are headed toward the welcoming gate of a glorious walled chateau, from the top of which, in the distance, a distance that seems infinite, you can glimpse a shining skyline of a thriving city. All this in the small compass of a few inches of canvas—a glistening world of everyday glory, hidden for centuries behind a black veil of paint, uncovered now for all to see.
Uncovered for all but one, that is. To this glorious view through the casement, the scholar remains oblivious, eternally hunched over his cryptic parchment. His back is to the window, his eyes remain lowered, his gaze fixed forever on an illegible scrap. He is buried in his business.
I have kept a photograph of that image in a prominent place in my study for almost forty years. In a way, it is like looking into a mirror. You stand in front of that van der Weyden painting aching, hoping, longing that that gentle man, so withdrawn into himself, so distracted by his business, so enmeshed in his manuscript, will have the grace simply to look up, to turn around, and behold the glory that has been revealed. And you hope the same for yourself.
Think of that painting as an Advent emblem, an emblem of the Great Uncovering. What is promised in the Advent prophecies is not destruction but restoration—a restoration of harmony and civility, a heavenly city rooted in earthly soil, visible just behind our back, if we would accept the invitation to turn around and see.
In the words of Luke’s gospel, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Not always an easy thing to believe, especially in these latter days. The ancient land that Jeremiah and Jesus knew so well–the land of Damascus and Ramallah and Jerusalem–seems once again poised for cosmic apocalypse. Redemption for Palestine seems very far away. And who knows what personal apocalypses lie before each of us in the next few weeks, as we try to conform to the demands of the season, as our own emotional resources are stretched to the max. Fiscal cliffs large and small loom in the near distance, and we know full well that no gift is large enough, no family perfect enough, no holiday anything like what the ads crack it up to be.
No matter. In this Advent season, look up. There is no need to lower your eyes in fear and shame. There is no need any longer to hide. Do not turn your back to the vision. Raise your heads. Look up. Turn around. Take the gift. Lend someone else a hand. Be reconciled with your neighbor and with yourself. Work for justice. The reign of God is coming near. The great uncovering, the great discovery, lies before us, and it is a good and gracious thing.
This essay is excerpted from a sermon preached by President Ferlo on December 2, 2012 (The First Sunday in Advent, Year C) at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert, California.