The French artist, Jean Francoise Millet, was a painter in 19th century who painted a picture which became universally famous and was commercially reproduced in great numbers. The painting is simply called the Angelus. It depicts two peasants standing in a field praying the Angelus prayer at the end of the day. The angelus is of course a prayer which is said at different times during the day, but also concludes the day’s work. The light is fading in the scene, the day is ending. The figures look tired and weary, their heads are bowed in prayer, the man takes off his hat and holds it in his hands, the woman, she joins her hands in prayer.
People like the painting for different reasons. Maybe because it seems serene, everything seems still in the world around about them as the 2 say their prayers at the end of the day, you can almost hear the bells tolling the angelus, in the church on the horizon. People like it too because it seems to captures an age when things were spiritually connected: the land, humble and simple people, the work of people’s hands, the creator of the world, the times and seasons. All seems to be joined up and captured in this moment of stillness and prayer.
But in actual fact some day there is darker meaning and intention that lies behind the painting. Millet, who himself was a socialist, wanted apparently to give a darker message. The peasants look tired and weary because they have been doing backbreaking work. The light in the picture is the very last light of the day indicating that they have been working from early morning until the last moment that they could. Their heads are bowed down, from tiredness and fatigue.
The man doesn’t just hold his hat but he seems to be ringing it, squeezing it, it seems to say something about his life, every hour and every waking moment is spent trying to survive and not go hungry. His gesture of ringing his hat seems also to say something about the land round about him, it doesn’t look fertile, it is rocky, unyielding and dry, he has to squeeze everything out of this land to get a living, to survive, to make ends meet.
The woman too isn’t praying but her hands are tightly clenched in fear, in trepidation and maybe also in grief. Below the feet of the peasants is a basket of potatoes which seems to be some of the things they have gathered in. People speculated that the shape of the basket was a coffin. Recent x-ray evidence has confirmed that the original was in actual fact the painting of a small coffin, maybe containing the body of the tiny child of the peasants who look on in with stunned grief. It seems that Millet’s original intention in the painting was to paint a funeral scene of a dead child mourned over by his parents, the peasants in the scene. Their heads are bowed in grief, the darkness of the picture reflects the sombre mood of their hearts. The land, dry and unyielding round about them seems to sum their life, drudgery, pain and suffering.
Some would like to make God a God of sentimentality. At first sight the painting seems to have this message. The day is ending, the work is done, these pious peasants who have been doing honest work are departing to their homes, and before they do this they are captured in prayer – all is at rights with the world. But Millet, I think, has painted a more challenging painting with a more challenging message. Looked at from a different point of view the lives of the peasants is unrelenting, hard, a toil, life is on a knife’s edge. The picture from this point of view is not of sentimentality but rather of confusion, grief and pain. By a strange twist the painting seems to have another message, something deeper and more meaningful: God is in the hard toil of people’s lives, in the back breaking work to survive, in that struggle to make sense of things, in that point at the end of the day when we wonder what it is all about, our toil, the efforts of our lives. The light fades, the day ends and we wonder what all our struggles and efforts really mean. Life can seem to be like the earth of the field, dry, unyielding and brutal. Our heads, like the peasants, fall down or hands are clenched like theirs, is it in prayer or anguish?
The feast of the Transfiguration comes to us like one of those beams of light in the sky line of Millet’s painting at the close of the day. It reminds us that God is not a God of sentimentality and sweetness. He is a God who brings light and knows darkness. In the coming death of Jesus he knows all the darkness and misery of human existence but he offers instead light; the same light that shines forth from Jesus on the mountain when he join by Moses and Elijah and watched over by the apostles. This light, this piercing light, this light which makes us what to shield our eyes shines into the greatest darkness of our own life. It gives us hope where there seems none, it gives meaning to our life when we can find none. It gives light when we seem surrounded by exernal and internal darkness.
God is not a God of sentimentality; all is not right with the world. God is a God of reality, who comes into our sinful world, who stretches his hand out to us, who comes off that throne of grace, that we hear in the first reading, and who descends into our midst and into the messiness of our life. He come to give light, hope, purpose and meaning and ultimately salvation to our souls. That beam of light sometimes comes through as a shaft from a dark cloud, like one of those scudding dark clouds that race across horizon in Millet’s painting. But we are assured that not even the darkest and most impenetrable clouds can hold back that light that is in God and that he sends into the world.