Dutch painter Jan Vermeer is remembered as a master of light and color. Long before his contemporaries, Vermeer was painting light, seeing not the object he was painting but the light that brought it to life. Yet like many of his contemporaries he died poor, without distinction, and without the slightest intimation of the reputation he would come to bear. He died young, leaving his wife and eleven children in financial ruin and the majority of his art claimed by creditors. Two hundred years, his paintings gained recognition and Vermeer became known as one of Holland’s greatest painters.
There seems to run a common thread through many of the artists, musicians, and writers that history has come to recognize as its most influential: they never lived to see their own influence. Countless lives now celebrated, once lived in need and died in obscurity. Only one of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings sold while he was yet living. William Blake, one of England’s great figures of art and literature, dwelled in near poverty and died unrecognized. Emily Dickinson’s talent was unmatched in its day, and yet she lived a life unknown and undiscovered. Only seven of her poems were published in her lifetime, all of which were altered by her publishers to match the style and form of the time.
There are many reputations that will die with the person to which they once belonged. There are many others who seem to be birthed posthumously, lives discovered in death, yet forever leaving a mark on humanity. To those of us living, it seems somehow unfair. They never lived to see how deeply their presence was felt. Their life’s significance was birthed only after their death.
The writers of Scripture seem to describe the lives of those who follow Christ in a similarly seemingly tragic way. They remind us without apology that humanity passes through its days like evening shadows and withers away like grass. And they claim paradoxically that somehow to die is gain and that in death is new life. To those who die with Christ, even what is withered will be raised–a promise both real in life and profoundly true in death. “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” asks the apostle Paul. “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”(1) In the words of Emily Dickinson, to some a death-blow is mysteriously and thoroughly a life-blow.
At the lowest ebb of his career, George Fredric Handel enclosed himself in a room and set to composing Messiah, a work inspired by a single line in Scripture: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”(2) The composition would become his best known and most beloved work, unsurpassed as sacred music, beloved across religious lines, though it enjoyed only moderate success while Handel lived.
In the same chapter of Scripture that inspired this masterpiece of which Handel would never live to see the full influence, we are asked not to consider our recognition among a world that will fade away but to look to the one whose rule is everlasting: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God’? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 40:27-28). In the kingdom of God, there are none so obscure as to be hidden, no life lived with Christ that goes unnoticed, whether unknown or well-remembered in time.
They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Romans 6:3-4.
(2) Isaiah 40:1.