The Harbor of Dieppe and the Light of Life
Updated: Mar 15
The Harbor of Dieppe and the Light of Life Mk 13:24-32
Jesus said to his disciples: "In those days after that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. "And then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in the clouds' with great power and glory, and then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky. "Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that he is near, at the gates. Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. "But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."
William Turner’s Harbor of Dieppe. Changement de Domicile is a stunning piece of art from the Romantic period. Turner was a gentleman, established as an artist in the Academy since a very young man. His art was universally recognized. This piece of art is a beautiful landscape that inspires peace. He is portraying the hustle and bustle of the harbor at Dieppe, where fishermen would bump into gentlemen and ladies at the market. There is a lot of light in the painting, leading some to even criticize it, saying there is too much light for such a northerly climate. Someone is moving house. One boat, in particular, is full of odds and ends that are moving from one apartment to another. When Turner was on his deathbed, his last words were “the sun is God.” In this painting, the sun is hinted at, but not shown. It must be about 10 o’clock in the morning, and the reflection of the sun in the water warms the center of the painting. The light reflects on the water amid the boats, with the market and much of the action to the right of the composition.
How do you keep something feeling new when it has been around forever? We have gotten bad at repetition. Nature is constantly repeating. We have only to look outside to pay attention to the current season of the year. It is probably like how things were a year ago, and two years ago, but radically different to how things were six months ago. Contemplating a beautiful painting like Turner’s Harbor of Dieppe slows down the mind and the heart and allows us to savor the splendor of life, without rushing on to the next thing, as our modern life has trained us.
When the first Christians heard about the Second Coming of Christ, it seemed new and exciting. But the wonder soon wears off. Even reading the letters of St. Paul, it seems we can perceive a change in attitude. In earlier letters such as 1 Th. 4:15-17 and 1 Cor. 15:51-52, it seems that Paul is expecting the second coming of Christ within his lifetime.
Later, however, it seems he expects to die before the Second Coming. 2 Cor. 5:1 talks about the earthly building we live in being destroyed. He is speaking about death before the Second Coming of Christ. Phil. 1:21 reminds us that death is gain as we depart to be with Christ which is far better. It is not necessary to wait for the Second Coming, as going to Heaven is our ultimate goal.
In today’s liturgy, we hear once again about the Second Coming of Christ. We can be skeptical, thinking that as it has not happened for 2,000 years, it is not likely to happen during our lifetime. We scoff at televangelists who predict the date of the end of the world. While there are certain excesses and we do not want to be taken in, believing in the Second Coming of Christ is central to our faith and our experience as Christians.
Just as we must face death, we must face the reality of the Second Coming of Christ.
Shakespeare struggled with the mystery of death in the words of the soliloquy spoken by Hamlet.
“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.” (Shakespeare, Hamlet)
Facing our mortality is one of the great challenges of our life. Though we trust in the goodness of God, there is always something mysterious about death.
In Turner’s painting, the sun is reflected on the water. It brings a lot of light and warmth into the painting and aids the feeling of peace in the observer. The sun is not seen directly, but it is the only way that the painting makes sense. Jesus is always present in our lives but often hidden from plain view. He is the only way to make sense of our lives.
Turner’s painting transports us back to Dieppe at a time when the harbor is home to fishermen, in contrast to today when it has become a tourist destination in Europe. Turner is communicating that the sun is present, though not obviously so. At the end of his life, his comment that “the sun is God” could mean that he wanted to show how God’s presence in the world, though not always obvious or overt, is what gives structure and backbone to the feeling and experience of peace in common, everyday events. We are all changing domicile, moving house. The reflection of the sun on the water, a faint reference to the presence of God in our lives, gives us comfort, just as today’s Gospel reminds us that Christ is coming and we are headed to Heaven. We can change the words of Turner on his deathbed and say instead, “the Son is God.” This brief, simple profession of faith prepares us to meet our maker and enter the glory of everlasting life. We do not know when Jesus is coming, but we know that it is good news.