In this story, Jésus Christ en Flandre, Balzac writes about a legend from Old Flanders near Ostende. It is part of his D’Études Philosophiques dans La Comédie Humaine written in 1831.
« En ce moment, un homme apparut à quelques de la jetée ; semblait s’être levé de terre, comme un paysan qui se serait couché dans un champ en attendant l’heure du départ et que la trompette aurait réveillé . Était-ce un voleur?” (At this moment a man appeared to a few paces from the jetty: he seemed lifted from the earth, like a peasant who had laid himself down on the ground until the time of departure and whom the trumpet would awaken. Was he a theif?”)
No, he was not a thief and he was no ordinary man.
Jésus-Christ en Flandre begins on the coast between the l’île de Cadzant near d’Ostende. This haven was “flanque d’une bourgade chétivement peuplée par quelques pêcheurs, par de pauvres négociants et par des corsaires impunis”. (flanked by a small town populated by a few fishermen, poor merchants, and unpunished pirates) .
As the ferryman launches a full boat of passengers, a man suddenly appears. The rich will not make him a seat, but an older soldier full of fatigue gives him his seat next to a young mother with her baby. A storm suddenly arises . Balzac describes the sky as “glowering as an executioner”.
The passengers start to panic “« Oh ! Mon pauvre enfant ! Qui sauvera mon enfant ? » (Oh, my poor baby, who will save my enfant?). L’Étranger replies, « Ayez la foi et vous serez sauvée ; qu’ils me suivent” (Have faith and you will be saved, as those who follow me).The stranger turned towards her, and the goodness in his face made her tremble.
The stranger stood upright, and walked with a firm step upon the waves. The young mother at once took her child in her arms, and followed at his side across the sea. The soldier who had given this man his seat also sprang up, without seeming astonished by it, he walked on the water. The worn-out sinner, believing in the omnipotence of God, also followed the stranger. One passenger, Thomas, tried to follow but his faith tottered; he sank in the sea more than once, and rose again, but the third time he also walked on the sea. However, those who did not have faith and were “heavily laden with sins” were dragged to the bottom of the sea and drowned. When the faithful flock reached the shore they, « ils cherchèrent en vain leur guide lumineux » (they looked around in vain for their guiding light) but their “Saveur” had disappeared .
According to the narrator (Balzac),”The Convent of Mercy was built for sailors on this spot, where for long afterwards (so it was said) the footprints of Jesus Christ could be seen in the sand; but in 1793, at the time of the French invasion, the monks carried away this precious relic, that bore witness to the Saviour’s last visit to earth”.
While Balzac’s story is not scriptural, there are some interesting parallels to this legend found in the life of Jesus in Matthew 8:23-27 and Mark 4:35-41. During a storm, the disciples wake Jesus up saying “Lord save us, we are perishing”(vs. 25) Jesus responds, “Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?” Jesus “rebukes the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm”. (vs 40).
The most important message, however, is that the “wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23) and that if you “declare with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).
I am thankful that Jesus is not “L’Etranger” to us!
Copyright 2013 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Balzac, Honoré. La Comédie Humaine. Etudes Philosophiques. Vol VII. Éditions du Seuil, 1965-66.
Chronological Study Bible. Thomas Nelson Pub.
The Project Gutenberg EBook of Christ in Flanders, by Honore de Balzac
Balzac captured in his story the very essence of faith. Saving faith requires stepping out into the unknown. It calls on to step out of the boat following the Savior. Sadly too many of us play it safe by trusting only our five senses when spiritual light comes to those who believe in the One that cannot been seen, heard or touch with our physical bodies, yet awakens our souls within.
Thanks for shedding light on this story from the life of Jesus seen through the eyes of a perceptive French thinker and novelist like Balzac.
Reblogged this on My French Quest.
Christ in Flanders sparked quite a conversation when it was a read at our Balzac group. I love your use of the two paintings as illustrations.
I loved the way Balzac retold this legend! Thank you for your comment