In recalling his painting of Abraham, the American abstract artist Barnett Newman (d. 1970) said that ‘The terror of it was intense’.
The process of artistic creation confronted Newman with radical inner exploration. The name of the work is both that of the biblical patriarch and of Newman’s father, who had died a couple of years earlier. The overwhelmingly dark tones of the painting could perhaps reflect Newman’s perception of a darkness in the life of both men.
In his oeuvre Newman engages with his Jewish roots, and some of his later work—notably Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachtani (1958–66)—also explicitly engages with notions of darkness and abandonment at the heart of the Christian story. There is no evidence of the latter in Abraham. Yet contemplation of this painting—in which a thick, black vertical ‘zip’ struggles to stand out against an only mildly lighter background—can generate fruitful insight into John 16:16–24.
What does it mean to ‘go back to the Father’? The disciples’ question is a question about life beyond death. Yet it has little spiritual purchase if it is not recognized, first of all, as an earthly question. Christ indicates that the journey to the Father is first a journey towards suffering and death, so it is understandable that the disciples are confused and afraid at the thought of what will become of them on their own journey to the Father.
Newman’s Abraham speaks of and to the terror of a journeying that is inextricably tied to suffering and death. But it also speaks of and to the potential for discovery such journeying entails.
If we look closely, we can discern amidst the various levels of darkness unexpected, nascent light. Are we encouraged by this light to discern life as well as death; even life through death? In such light, we might also recognize Abraham as a metaphor for artistic creation. The painting challenges us to face darkness in our own journeying. Whether or not we think of our journeying as being towards the Father, refusing to avoid darkness might bring us to nascent light.
16 “A little while, and you will see me no more; again a little while, and you will see me.” 17Some of his disciples said to one another, “What is this that he says to us, ‘A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’; and, ‘because I go to the Father’?” 18They said, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We do not know what he means.” 19Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him; so he said to them, “Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, ‘A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’? 20Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. 21When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world. 22So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. 23In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father, he will give it to you in my name. 24Hitherto you have asked nothing in my name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.