Have you a favorite painting of the nativity? For painters of the Italian school of Renaissance painting, the nativity was a favorite subject. On the front of the Christmas bulletin, we see a reproduction of the central panel of St Martin’s altar reredos. The celebrated muralist of the Art Deco period, Hildreth Meiere has depicted the nativity in the style of an earlier artistic period. In nativity paintings, our attention is deliberately drawn to the action in the foreground.
Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus seem suspended in time against an imaginative depiction of a manger in a state of near disrepair. Surrounded by representatives of the animal kingdom, here we find shepherds, wise men, and in some instances the patrons of the particular artist who have had themselves inserted into the nativity scene among those who have come to pay homage to the infant Christ child.
Have you ever noticed the backdrop? Because our attention is always is drawn towards the figures in the foreground we fail to notice how the nativity event is set against the backdrop of ruins. The ruins of a pre-Christian antiquity; a symbolic expression of former things now superseded by the nativity event.
I particularly like those paintings where the backdrop is divided between two contrasting scenes. On one side we see depicted organized rural life, neatly tended vineyards, winding roads leading to a walled town in the far distance. The other side shows darker more turbulent skies beneath which we see the tumbledown ruins of antiquity, overrun by nature. As a backdrop to the birth of the Christ-child, human manicured countryside is contrasted with the collapse of civilization and wild revenge of nature’s reclamation.
Art depicts in a highly stylized form the figures of the Holy Family who seem unnaturally illuminated. Most of us are more than comfortable with this stylized depiction of enchantment. Our comfort lies in the way that the paintings speak to a part of us that longs for the return of a sense of long-lost enchantment; a hankering for a return of innocence.
The painters of the Renaissance period still lived within an enchanted mindset and worldview. I borrow the term enchantment from Charles Taylor’s tracing of the rise of our present secular age. What characterizes an enchanted perspective is the interpenetration of the divine within the material structures of our world. Here, the spiritual dimension is part of the material fabric experienced in places, through objects, and in persons. Yet, there was also a terror within the enchanted worldview for if the divine inhabited material existence so did it’s opposite, evil. The painters give voice to these fears in the almost hidden details of the backdrop scenery.
In contrast, we live in what Taylor calls as the age of disenchantment. Our disenchantment can be roughly traced back to the age of Enlightenment at the end of the 17thC. Enlightenment is an ironic term for a long social movement, which on the one hand freed us from the darkness of superstition and fear, yet ushered in a new kind of darkness, a darkness of despair. A despair born of the realization that human emancipation from enchantment has left us occupying center stage with God now banished to wings. As we celebrate our emancipation it also begins to dawn on us that we are now alone in a universe now largely of our own making and breaking. Today we find ourselves flat-lining in a world of profound disenchantment and increasing disillusionment.
In the infant Christ, God enters into a world that is turbulent and chaotic. In the conventions of Renaissance painting, this is the world of the ruinous backdrop where we wander around among the ruins, stumbling over the fallen stones of the forgotten and half- remembered.
Some will find this last statement shocking. Not because they deny its truth but because they abhor my timing. Christmas Eve, of all times, is a night for joy and celebration. Yet, I stand by my statement not because I have submitted to the darkness of despair but because our journey towards the illumination of the nativity event depicted in the foreground can only begin once we take an accurate compass bearing from our location among the fallen stones of the forgotten and half remembered. Our journey to the Christ-child progresses from among the ruins of our lives and the brokenness of our world on into the light.
God’s coming into the world is not a coming of strength into a world of light reflected from glossy surfaces. Jesus’ incarnation is not like the incarnation myth of Augustus Caesar – a divine prince of light coming gloriously and dazzlingly into a world made perfect by his arrival. God’s coming in the fragile form of a human infant, in insignificance and the hidden obscurity of the wrong part of the world is an entry of the divine into a world of instability and uncertainty.
Christians understand the nativity of Jesus as God’s final act of creation. Having created the world, bestowing stewardship responsibilities on humanity, God has watched over creation sometimes in anger, but mostly in sorrow. God has time and again called his chosen back to share the original vision for the creation. Now in the act of Incarnation, creation is made complete through God’s self-emptying entry into the experience of the created order from the inside out, as it were. Our God, Emmanuel –God is with us – comes not to visit, but to stay.
We cannot go back to an enchanted mindset. The Enlightenment has irrevocably reshaped our modern minds. Rather our contemporary task is to abandon the solitary hubris that is the root of our despair and encounter the transformative experience of the transcendent within the here and now remembering that for which we hope is already not far from us because of our daring to have hope.
As we journey from our wandering among the ruins of the backdrop towards the illumination of the scene in the foreground we become, as Bishop Nicholas Knisely puts it, charged with the light photons of the nativity scene. We begin to glow more brightly with every step of the way as we journey out of the backdrop and into the foreground where our transformation takes place.
What is the nature of this transformation, this glowing more brightly?
- We celebrate the ordinary and everyday nature of our lives in which vulnerability and risk are foremost.
- We become more relational for relationship is the medium the God of the universe chooses to be known through, ensuring that our relationships and communities become the places where grace is encountered.
- We witness to the nativity, taking heart that it is our ordinariness, our unworthiness, our invisibility that makes us the objects of God’s love, and being so loved, we go and do likewise.
Luke in writing his account of the nativity of the Christ child is writing theology, not history, and certainly not science. In a recent article in the New York Times, Peter Wehner quotes the writer Garry Wills who describes Jesus as: undiscriminating and inclusive, not gradated and exclusive ... a man who honors women and considers sinners his friends. Here is the heart of Luke’s theology, a theology that we are called to make real in lives well lived.
On Christmas Day, our gospel reflection will move on into the Prologue of John’s Gospel. Here, John speaks of the coming of Christ, not in the language of nativity. He declares Jesus to be the Word present at the moment of creation. The Word of God– in Greek Logos – is the communicative element in God. The Word is God irradiating outwards from God’s self as en-lighten-ment.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ….. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
As we approach 2017, for many of us it seems the world has taken a turn towards the embrace of darker hues. But we are those who know that the light has come into the world, and thus we are called through our baptism to be the bearers of that light. The responsibility is huge – to shine in the darkness and not be overcome; to be that light the world so urgently needs.