His father had been a minister. His grandfather as well. So, when he failed as an art dealer and began to reexamine his life, it seemed clear to Vincent that God had a better plan for his life, preaching the Gospel. “It is my fervent prayer and desire,” he told his brother, “that the spirit of my father and grandfather may rest upon me.”
He didn’t lack for zeal. He spent Sundays going from church to church, Protestant or Catholic, listening to sermons, sometimes taking in three or four. Even before beginning formal instruction, Vincent “began studying his catechism immediately, furiously copying out page after page.” When his father arranged for seminary training, Vincent’s zeal increased. “He studied with pen in hand, writing out lengthy summaries of the vast tracts that filled his nights and strained his eyes. He copied out great swaths of text, sometimes whole books. ‘I know of no better way to study,’ he insisted.” And yet the work wasn’t a natural fit. Ancient languages were particularly difficult. “It does not come to me so easily and quickly as I could wish,” he admitted. When school administrators made clear to him that a degree was beyond his reach, thoughts of suicide assailed him.
Of course, then as now, one could take up preaching without a diploma, so Vincent went to coal mining territory, in southern Belgium, where a newly formed congregation gave him a trial as a lay preacher and catechist, and yet, though he admired the miners and their families, Vincent was hopelessly introverted. Struggling with his own understanding of God’s desires for him, he fasted excessively, washed infrequently, and “often walked in the bitter winter without a coat.” He even refused to live in the house provided for him, settling instead in a hut.
To his parishioners Vincent was simply weird and off-putting, though he did excel at ministering to the sick. “After mine accidents and explosions, he rushed to help care for the injured, including one man who was ‘burnt from head to toe.’ He ripped linen bandages and applied them with wax and olive oil that he sometimes paid for himself. He worked ‘night and day,’ according to one account, sitting beside sickbeds praying and evangelizing, and ‘fell to his knees with fatigue and joy’ when patients recovered.”
And yet within a short time it was clear to everyone that Vincent had failed his probationary pastorate. After trying without success to secure a new position as an assistant, he took to wandering the open country, in the manner of King Lear. Writing of himself in the third person he wrote, “One does not always know what he can do, but he nevertheless instinctively feels, I am good for something. My existence is not without reason!...How can I be of use, how can I be of service? There is something inside me, but what can it be?” Those disconsolate words, of a young man lost in life, were penned by Vincent van Gogh. Evidently, God had brought him into the world to be painter, not a pastor.
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (Jn 12: 23). It’s a perplexing way for Jesus to speak of his approaching death, and yet our Lord constantly refers to his “hour” in the Fourth Gospel. By the end of the book, it’s clear that Jesus’ hour, his hour of glory, is his death upon the cross. In fact, in the Fourth Gospel, it could be said that Jesus reigns from the cross. He isn’t captured by Temple guards, he identifies himself with the Mosaic words, “I am,” and it is his captors who fall to the ground (Jn 18:6).
John’s was the last of the canonical gospels to be composed. One can see a trajectory in comprehension of the cross from the first, that of St. Mark, to this. In Mark’s Gospel the sheer scandal of the cross is still evident. Jesus approaches it “distressed and troubled” (Mk 14:33). Despite the resurrection, the Christian community could barely comprehend that such a horrible death could fulfill the will of God. A half century later, and the Johannine community had come to see the cross as the very wisdom of God. Calvary reveals God’s glory. The Son chooses the cross; the Father clearly acquiesces.
Even non-believing stoics will admit that life has a way of working itself out. As his biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith trace in Van Gogh: The Life (2011), Vincent, the failed preacher, became Vincent van Gogh, the incomparable painter. But there is more revealed in Jesus’ Hour of Glory than “life working out for the best.” Remember that the Vincent van Gogh, who pondered suicide as failed preacher, finally committed it as an artist. Only a fool forgets that the world and its history are full of tragedies that, decidedly, do not “work themselves out.”
In the Fourth Gospel the wit of the world withers before the wisdom of God. Even to claim to understand “the way of the world” is still to know nothing of the utter mystery from which it came, the enigma we call God. As the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth put it, “The gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question mark against all truths.”
The Gospel would be no good news if it did not proclaim that in Jesus Christ, God has ended an alienation we could never abrogate. “‘Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.’” (Jn 12: 31-32).
The cross and resurrection of the Christ cannot be reduced to the pabulum that “things have a way of working out.” Rather, the Gospel finds short the reckoning of the world. St. John’s community was convinced that Christ reigns from the cross, calling this world to judgement, all the while birthing a new, unimaginable world from his wounded side. “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life” (Jn 12: 24-35).
Rev. Terrance W. Klein