encounters with God in the world's great art
Sample Communion / Lord's Supper
Nicolaes Maes: Old Woman Praying (Prayer without End)
(This image is projected onto a screen as the speaker delivers the accompanying text)
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Speaker: The title of this painting is "Old Woman Praying." Can we hear her prayer? Certainly it is a prayer of thanksgiving for the meal on the table before her. But do we hear more in her prayer than just "Thank you for the food?"
Her dress is not fancy; it suggests that her means are meager. The table is small, the meal is simple, the home is modest; these confirm that she has little in the world to comfort her. Most poignantly, we notice that the table is set for one. We can imagine the parents, the siblings, the cherished husband, and even perhaps her children, who have either died or left her behind. The pleasure of this simple meal may be all she has – it may be all of life that is left to her.
But looking up to the window we can find signs that her situation is not so bleak. The meal may be all that’s left of her material life, but there’s an open Bible on the sill. There’s a lamp that symbolizes the guidance of the One Who is the Light of the World. And the keys suggest to us that in her faith and devotion, she holds the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.
So perhaps we can hear in her prayer a connection between the earthly, material meal that inspires her gratitude, and the spiritual power and comfort provided by the God to whom the prayer is offered. The loaf of bread and the jug on the table suggest an even closer connection. It links this woman’s humble meal with the meal we celebrate today: the meal in which the bread and the wine for which we give thanks are not just physical sustenance, but are the body and blood of Him who sustains us in a spiritual way and in every way, and not just for a day but for all time.
Interestingly, the painting also has a subtitle, which is "Prayer without End." What does this suggest to us? At the very least, it tells us that her devotion is no newfound fad for her. This prayer has been her habit for most of her life. More significantly, it suggests that this very prayer may in fact have no end but may, before it’s over, become a conversation that is face-to-face. It may not be just another meal, but her last meal for which this woman gives thanks. And if that is the case, her prayer for the provisions on the table becomes a prayer celebrating the providence of her entire life. The prayer without end becomes more than a recitation, more than a habit or duty. As it becomes a face-to-face encounter, it achieves communion with God.
Will you join her at this table? Take a moment to be silent and shut out trivial distractions like the kitten she ignores. Consider the table set before you and remember the mercy and grace God has shown you in your life. As you relish a good meal that satisfies you for a moment, will you cherish the body and the blood of Him who sustains you all your days here and in the hereafter? As you bow your head to pray, will you earnestly cling to the hope of true communion with God in the mystery of this sacred meal? And as you receive the elements, will you receive the One who is Alpha and Omega, the answer to all questions, the object of all longings, the creator and sustainer of life from everlasting to everlasting – will you pray the prayer without end?
(At this point, the worship leader may proceed with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper according to the tradition of the particular church. Depending upon the worship leader’s preference, the artwork may continue to be projected during the celebration, or the projector may be turned off at this point.)