Sometimes the most beautiful works of art are born out of one’s deepest pain. Vincent van Gogh’s oil painting “The Starry Night” is such an example. The Dutch post-Impressionist painter created the painting in 1889 while he was a patient at a French asylum near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Even though he suffered from paranoia, Van Gogh was allowed to leave the hospital grounds. He was also provided with his own studio so that he could continue painting. His improving mental health was short lived, though, and soon spiraled down into the depths of depression.
This depressive state is captured in the darker colors that one sees in “The Starry Night” with blues dominating the canvas, blending hills into the sky, and a village painted in browns, greys and blues, with each building outlined in black. Such a dark background makes the stars in the in the starry night sky stand out even more.
What I notice the most in Van Gogh’s painting is that while the village houses are illumined with yellow windows, indicating light shining within, the windows of the white steepled church are darkened — there is no light inside. Art critics, art historians and psychiatrists can all have a field day analyzing why this is so. But a pastor friend helped me to see the darkened church windows not as disturbing, but as hopeful.
After all, the light of Christ is not to be contained in a building. It is meant to shine brightly in our homes, on the streets of cities, towns and villages, and, as Matthew’s Gospel reminds us, we are the light of the world, carrying the Christ light wherever we go.
One year, I received a print of Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” as a Christmas card from that pastor friend of mine. An artist herself, I wasn’t surprised to receive such an unconventional holiday card. She had a unique way of seeing the world. But it did make me wonder what she was thinking in choosing such a card. And then I read her message inside. Along with Christmas greetings, she added a postscript that read: “May the light of Christ never stay inside a church building.”
Ever-radiant God, thank you for the starry nights that give me hope when my world descends into darkness. And thank you for seeing in me, the ability to be a “Christ–light” to others. May I shine Christ’s love brightly beyond the safety of organized religion and beyond the comfort of a familiar building.
In what ways can you carry the light of Christ beyond traditional church things such as Sunday morning worship, Bible study gatherings or the occasional mission project? If Van Gogh was to paint your house, would its windows be illuminated with Christ’s light?