When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Mark 16:1-8
The young man in the white robe is often thought of as an angel. Angel is from a Greek word meaning ‘messenger,’ and he is certainly that. But is he a divine being? Is he so different from ordinary humans? This painting by Maurice Denis makes me wonder. On the left side of the painting is a pair of figures whose arms are raised in a gesture of greeting, or blessing. Or it could be one figure with a mirror image or shadow behind him/her. The mirror image might be the artist’s way of depicting the divine and human realities of this scene. The figure (or figures) on the left are clad in white—but so are the women on the right. The people contrast with the exuberantly bright colors in the landscape around them. What are we, the viewers, to make of these white garments? Maurice Denis (1870–1943) was a French painter and writer who often painted subjects from the Bible, and was a member of the Nabis, a group of avant-garde painters who called themselves by the Hebrew word for prophet. It might not be reading too much into the painting to suppose that the artist is saying something about divine messages, maybe that the angel isn’t the only bearer of those messages. The women came to the tomb on an errand of mercy. Perhaps the artist is showing them robed in white like the ‘angel’ because they are divine messengers too. Have you ever had an experience with a person who was there just when you needed them, in a way that seemed to be a gift from God? You may have thought in your heart of hearts: “That person was an angel.” And very likely, you said nothing about it to anyone.
Here is something worth thinking about: what would happen if you told someone about a remarkable experience that felt like God was present in your life? If you overcame the amazement (and self-doubt?), and put words to your sense of Holy Presence? I suspect that there are divine messengers—and messages—all around us. If you look carefully in the center of the painting, you will see Jesus, with a woman in blue kneeling at his feet. Perhaps the Jesus they were seeking wasn’t as far away as they thought. That is a divine message too.