The text chosen for the Fifth Sunday of Lent is from the Gospel of John, chapter 11. John 9 (last week) is about a man who was blind, whom Jesus made un-blind; John 11 is about a man who had become dead, whom Jesus made un-dead.
This compelling scene from John’s Gospel has been painted many times, and even by the great masters such as Giotto, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Tintoretto, and Van Gogh. I have chosen a painting by a lesser known French Baroque painter named Jean Jouvenet (born 1649 in Rouen, France; died in April of 1717 in Paris) – The Raising of Lazarus, which was one of four massive (twenty-feet long) paintings that he completed and presented in 1706 in Paris. Let us see whether Jouvenet’s contemplation of John 11 may help our own.
There is this text from Matthew 5:
14 You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house.
Jesus does not say that we are supposed to become lights of the world, but that we are lights shining in the world. And so the real question to us is this: upon what or whom do we choose, or compulsively choose, to shine? Or, what circumstances in one’s life context, or what kind of people, do our words and gestures direct the rest of us to notice? Or, finally, do we pay enough attention to the habitual focus of our attention: what we always notice about those among whom we live, what we always notice happening in contemporary society and its politics and issues or in our churches, or what we always notice in a scene we pray with in the Scriptures? If we are lights, as Jesus insists, then how aware are we of where we aim our light?
The painting here by Jean Jouvenet, presents us with a riddle of light – the four different sources of light he paints, and what each source lights up and to what degree. Did you notice how we can overlook how the painter must learn how to paint light?
One source of light is the torch held up inside of the tomb, carried by one of the group of men who went into the tomb to see if things were as they were when they had buried Lazarus there four days earlier. Their startled expressions and gestures capture our own attention and make us look with them towards an awakening Lazarus. He is alive … again! It is the light that one of them carries that allows them and us to see this wonder. But the torch’s light is subdued, almost the brightness of a single candle, just barely able to let us see the men and Lazarus. This tells us that the very deed that we had assumed was most important– a raising from the dead – is to this artist not what is most important.
God is working miracles in the world. But how typical of humans that we are not paying attention to His divine action, and so no one goes to see His wondrous work, telling the rest of us what God has done for us. In the painting, four men went and saw, and by their torch let us see too. Think of the example in Luke’s gospel of the angels of Heaven who recognized a miracle of greatest profoundness done by God in the world – while the world was in clueless sleep – and who, every one of them, came from Heaven to see it. And remember how the angels awakened the shepherds to this that had happened in Bethlehem. As Jouvenet’s four men went into a cave to see a miracle, so the shepherds went into another cave to see a greater one:
15 When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
A second source of light emanates from around the head of Him Who has just made Lazarus un-dead. How the artist paints this source of light is the most puzzling of all. The nimbus is even more subdued than the torch, casting its light on nothing else in the scene, barely able to light up Jesus’ face – leaving most of it in shadow. More than anyone else in that scene, we might have expected Jesus to be ablaze with light – the Divine Light – because, well, He is the divine Source, the One raising a man from the dead. This tells us that the very person whom we had assumed was the most important in this scene – Jesus – is to this artist not the most important. (However, this is not to say that the artist thought Jesus unimportant (!), but that he wants us to pay attention to someone whom we have overlooked.)
A third source of light is the hidden Sun that lights up the sky in the upper right corner of the painting. The way the Sun sets alight the upper edge of the clouds, and the silver-bright mercury color of that light, suggests to me that the Sun is just now rising over the world. This third source reminds us that we can see things in the world without being able to see the source that makes them visible to us. As in Matthew 5:14-15 (quoted above), the Sun exists not so that we can look at it, but so that we can see all that the Sun illumines.
The fourth and last source of light comes, and most intriguingly, not from any source in the painting – that matchless light that illumines Mary, about whom John says:
2 Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was ill.
Notice how the torch is far too subdued, as is the nimbus at the head of Jesus, to light up Mary to the degree that she is lit more than anyone else in the scene (more than her brother who is coming back from the dead!). She incandesces there at the center of the painting, dressed in a white garment hemmed with golden brocade.
Where is all of that light on Mary coming from, a light as intense as that of a Klieg light and as focused? There is only one possible answer: this light comes from the artist, from Jean Jouvenet, who in his prayerful contemplation of this scene from John 11 sees Mary more vividly than any of the other characters. Do you see? He is paying attention to her, and his attention makes us see her more vividly than even the Lord Himself! Jouvenet is a light (Matthew 5:14-15), who illumines Mary, making us notice her. Why, we wonder, is Jouvenet so captured by her presence in this scene?
Jouvenet chose to paint the “in-between” moment for Mary. She is still in the process of beseeching Jesus on behalf of her long-dead brother – notice the turn of her head – whom she and her sister have reminded Him is someone He (especially) loves:
32 When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Mary is still looking at Jesus, beseeching Him, with her right hand gesturing towards her dead brother and his tomb. Jouvenet, and I think with considerable delight as well as insight, notices that Jesus has already answered her prayer … and that she has not yet realized that He has! Mary has not noticed that right behind her, Lazarus is already waking up in his tomb and in a way intensely obvious to the men who went to check on him there. And Jesus who has already answered her prayer is giving nothing away on His face, His mostly expressionless face – has Jouvenet imagined in Jesus a “dead pan” style of humor? – so that she does not turn and attend to what Jesus has just done for her brother.
But she will turn in a moment. Just watch her. I think that she will soon have good use for the fresh garment that she has brought for her brother, holding it in her left hand.
I wonder whether that which Jouvenet notices about Mary is that she is bold enough in her faith to ask for something impossible to be done for someone she loves – that Jesus raise her brother Lazarus from the dead. Her boldness is what Jouvenet recognizes and highlights. A very wise and now elderly Jesuit friend of mine once said to a group of us (I think that he might have been riffing off an insight from G.K. Chesterton): “The issue for most people is not that they ask too much of God and find themselves disappointed in God’s response to their beseeching. The issue is that we ask so pathetically little of God, when God would wish that we learn to ask Him for things far greater and more wonderful than we dare ask.”
Could it not be that what caused Jouvenet to light up Mary as he did is that she did ask of Christ the impossible, revealing the depth of her trust in Him, asking it of the One whose feet she had washed with her tears and then anointed with finest perfume. It is her sheer boldness and startling degree of trust in Him that makes her shine with divine faith … and Jouvenet could see that.
 The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1919 writes: “Jouvenet is far from being a great master, but he is a striking personality in the realms of art. His works, theatrical and often declamatory, but honest and powerful, do not excite emotion, though one can still easily understand their great historic importance. They taught painting to the French school which had forgotten it.” The French had been for centuries in the business of imitating the Italian masters, rather than finding their own style. Jouvenet was a key figure in catalyzing a distinctively French approach to painting.
 The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (LACMA) writes: “The huge Raising of Lazarus, one of four vast canvases painted by Jouvenet early in the eighteenth century for the church of Saint Martin-des-Champs in Paris [i.e. the Benedictine Abbey of St. Martin located “outside the walls of the city of Paris – “in the fields” – the church completed during the 11th to 13th centuries], is a tour-de-force of the realistic style, combined with the elevated and idealized.” All four of these paintings by Jouvenet, intended for that ancient Abbey Church, were relocated to and remain in the Louvre in Paris.
 New American Bible (Revised Edition.; Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Mt 5:14–15.
 New American Bible (Revised Edition.; Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Lk 2:15.
 I say “un-dead” rather than “alive” to capture that which is most startling to the onlookers – not that he is alive, but that he is no longer dead!
 The Oxford English Dictionary Online defines “nimbus” (what we also call a “halo”) this way: “A bright or luminous cloud or cloud-like formation supposedly enveloping or surrounding a deity or supernatural being.”
 The Oxford English Dictionary Online defines the transitive verb “to illumine”: “To light up, shed light upon; to shine upon or into; to light up in token of rejoicing or honour.” I love the last part of this definition, because it brings out the joy that one feels when he or she is able to light up realities that others have so far been unable to see.
 New American Bible (Revised Edition.; Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 11:2.
 New American Bible (Revised Edition.; Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 11:32.
 I think here of something similar happening with Mary Magdalene at the tomb of Jesus: “She said to them, ‘The have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.” (John 20:13-14 NABRE)