By Tom Wachunas
Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” - Genesis 32:26
Yet another commentary on a very recent work of mine.
I was a senior in high school when I first saw a picture of Paul Gauguin’s 1888 painting, “Vision After the Sermon.” To this day, and far beyond the importance of the work as a pivotal and innovative aesthetic development in Gauguin’s oeuvre, the painting still fascinates me. More than ever before.
There’s something timeless about that intense red ground upon which two figures are locked in hand-to-hand combat. Historical analyses of the painting invariably tell us that Gauguin depicted Christian congregants meditating on a sermon about Jacob’s encounter with an angel. I’m not sure how and when folks began to embrace the notion that Jacob ever wrestled with an angel as such. The Genesis author made very clear that it was a man who grappled with Jacob all night long. Read the account for yourself in Genesis 32:24-39. In any case, I’ve always seen both figures in the painting as immersed in the searing aura of spiritual struggle and catharsis. A baptism by fire.
As a Christian, I’ve come to understand that Jacob’s opponent was most probably the pre-incarnate Jesus, who is both God and a man like no other, and that Jacob did indeed receive his blessing, but not without cost. He was thenceforth left with a limp - a sort of permanent spiritual tattoo.
And so it is that reflecting on how deeply Gauguin’s dramatic imagery has remained imprinted for so long on my consciousness, I had originally named my work – a relief painting made from found clothing and feathers, all stiffened with several coats of latex acrylic - “Gauguin’s Tattoo.” I struggled with making the piece sporadically for nearly a year – my own nightlong wrestling match, if you will. In the end, however, I called it simply enough, “After the Sermon.”
What sermon? Nothing less than the totality of Scripture.
“After the Sermon” is a symbol of an outcome, a consequence, an aftermath. On one level it’s a processing of that contentious, selfish, and ultimately dangerous state of mind and heart wherein we humans so easily indulge in inventing and reinventing God as we would like him to be. We think we find peace in conforming him to our own image and desires. We can certainly be a proud lot, yes? Armed with all manner of philosophies and intellectual probity, it is in the end only a sinister sort of joy that we take in our arrogance, our pride in thinking that our idea of God must in fact be the indisputable reality of God. But God isn’t an idea.
On a more personal and important level, “After the Sermon” is about calm after the storm, stillness after the arguments, the surrender that heals the limp. It’s a prayer of thanksgiving. Resting on and in the only reality there is, Christ, there is what the Apostle Paul called in Philippians 4:7 the “peace of God which transcends all understanding.”
That’s His story, and I’m stickin’ to it.