It’s Christmas day and to bring the advent calendar to a close, I’ll end as I began, with a gorgeous painting from Rembrandt. The HolyFamily depicts Mary and Joseph back home with their son and Mary’s mother, Anne. After the roller-coaster of nativity events and emotions, it is time for this family to get on with their lives. And so we leave them there, in this scene of domestic peace and normalcy.
We hope you have enjoyed this advent blog series – have a lovely festive time and we will be back in the new year with more theology blog offerings from Auckland.
It’s Christmas Eve and today’s penultimate advent offering is drawn from another gospel scene oft associated with the festive season – the visitation of the magi (or wise men) to Bethlehem to see the infant Jesus, whom they believed had been born “king of the Jews” (Matthew 2.1-12). It’s a popular image in art (and on Christmas cards), the Magi standing deferentially before the crib holding out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The particular depiction I’ve chosen is from the 19th Century English painter and designer Edward Burne-Jones. The painting is called The Star of Bethlehem and was the source for a tapestry designed and completed by decorative arts group William Morris & Co a few years later. Both painting and tapestry are utterly beautiful, each with its own vibrant colour palette and attention to detail – I particularly like the plethora of flowers that fill the tapestry version of the picture. In each image, the magi stand humbly by with their gifts, crowns taken off in deference to this special child. Jesus, meanwhile, sits on his mother’s lap – he looks a tad unsure of these new arrivals, or maybe he’s not taken by the gifts they’ve brought. Both of his parents likewise seem somewhat uncomfortable by this encounter – perhaps it reiterates for them the real strangeness of all the events that have taken place in their lives within this gospel nativity narrative. Only the androgynous angel, who hovers beside the group holding the star of Bethlehem in his or her hand, appears fully at ease, certain that things are all moving along according to plan.
Today’s advent offering follows on from yesterday’s depiction of the annunciation to the shepherds to the next stage in the nativity story, as told in Luke 2.15-20:
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
The Adoration of the Shepherds by 17th Century Dutch painter Matthias Stom shows us a group gathered round the manger looking at the infant who lies there. The artist uses light and darkness (chiaroscuro again) in this painting to gorgeous effect – the light that bathes the faces of the shepherds and of Mary does not appear to be from any candle or flame this time but from the (very blond and chubby) babe himself, the artist’s way of stressing his special significance. The shepherds look both awed and delighted, while Mary stands placidly by, pondering, as the Gospel story suggests, what the shepherds have told her about her son. The picture is filled with warmth, from the rich reds and blues of garments to the gold glow of light emanating from the manger, giving the scene a tone of comfort and delight that is lovely to look at. After yesterday’s drama of angelic annunciations and singing heavenly hosts, we can stop for a while, catch our breath, and cherish this quiet moment of joy.
Today’s advent offering moves us on in the nativity narrative to a scene that is described in Luke 2.8-13 – the annunciation of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds:
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
The painting I’ve chosen that illustrates this annunciation is by 17th Century Dutch painter Pieter Mulier II. The reason I like it so much is the way that it draws the viewer into the action of the scene. The shepherds and their animals all crowd around the very forefront of the picture – they’re so close to us that we can almost feel as though we are there with them, sitting on the grass beside them, looking straight ahead at the awesome inbreaking of the heavenly realm into the still of the night. While most of the animals site docilely, seemingly unimpressed with the unfolding events, a startled dog to our right has overturned a copper pot – if I stretch out my hand, I think I could catch hold of it. Some of the shepherds, like us, are looking at the angelic figure who is reaching out beyond the ochre-gold clouds to get our attention; others seem to still be asleep, unaware as yet of the amazing sight in the sky. No doubt they’ll soon wake up once the great company of angels start to sing.
Tomorrow, we’ll see what happens next in the nativity narrative, once the shepherds arrive in Bethlehem.
For the last few days of the advent calendar, I thought I would look at some images depicting the nativity story, as told in the Christian gospels of Luke and Matthew. To start us off, I’ve chosen this beautiful painting usually attributed to Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Brueghel the younger (brother of Jan Brueghel the elder, whom we’ve met in a past post). The painting is titled The Census at Bethlehem, depicting the events of Luke 2, which describe the journey of Joseph and the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem in order to be registered as part of the Roman imperial census:
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered… So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. (Lk 2.1-5)
The painting shows a snowy Bethlehem, buzzing with those who, like Mary and Joseph, have come for the census. The detail in the picture is wonderful to look at (I recommend you enlarge the picture on your computer screen – I promise you’ll be captivated by all the action taking place in it). Children play on the frozen river, people crowd round bonfires and braziers trying to keep the winter chill out, and a rather boisterous snowball fight appears to be taking place in the background (see if you can spot the woman rubbing snow into the face of a man lying on the ground). To the left in the foreground, a crowd forms around a building that is usually taken to be the place of registration for the census – people queue up at a table, behind which others sit taking down details and receiving payment (taxes perhaps?) Meanwhile, to the right of this building, near the centre of the painting, we spot Mary and Joseph, making their way across the snow. Joseph is pointing ahead to their destination, while Mary sits, riding on a donkey, keeping warm in a teal green cloak. With all the action, hubbub, and clamour that seems to fill this scene, the couple easily get lost – for the moment, they are just two ordinary folk amidst many others – tired, cold, and hungry after their long journey. Yet very soon, according to gospel traditions, they will become extraordinary, given the events that unfold in this nativity narrative. But more about that tomorrow…
One of the sayings attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi – “preach the Gospel everywhere; use words if necessary” – was probably never said by him (Same, by the way, with the “Peace Prayer of Saint Francis” through which we groaned our way to various musical settings at primary school).
Even so, the attributed advice does accurately reflect Francis’s approach to preaching. In a recent biography of Saint Francis, Augustine Thompson observes that most of the early followers of Francis had no previous experience of preaching. Though Franciscans would become – along with Dominicans – the preaching experts of the mediaeval church, the first ones may not have been that good at it.
Or, at least, they may not have been that good at traditional preaching; Francis seems to have been a creative genius when it came to less traditional expressions of the genre. The content of his sermons may not have been particularly cerebral, but he was skilled at reaching his audience at an emotional and intuitive level.
It can’t be said of many preachers that the effect of a single sermon reaches through the centuries, but I think this can fairly be said of Francis’s sermon preached in retirement from the village of Greccio. Here’s the account from Thompson’s biography:
Greccio during that Christmas season witnessed one of the most touching and revealing incidents in Francis’s life. Two weeks or so before the feast, Francis called on a certain John of Greccio, with whom he was familiar, and had him erect a grotto modelled on Bethlehem, with straw-filled manger, ox and ass, and an image of the Child Jesus. He placed it within the church’s choir screen, near the altar. On Christmas night the townspeople gathered by torchlight to contemplate the scene. The friars sang the Vigils of the Nativity, which at that time immediately preceded Midnight Mass. Francis served as the deacon for the Mass, and, after singing the Gospel, he entered the pulpit and preached on the Nativity of the Saviour.
Overcome with emotion, Francis pronounced the words “Babe of Bethlehem” in such as way that those hearing thought they could hear the bleating of the sheep around the manger scene. He picked up the figure of the Child, held it in his arms, and presented it for the devotion of those present. John of Greccio thought he saw the previously lifeless image vivified and remade as the living Christ Child. At the end of the service, those present entered the sanctuary and took pieces of straw to keep as relics. Reports circulated that sick domestic animals recovered their health, and women in labour touched with it had easy deliveries…
The humiliation of the Son of God, who became a child in the stable amid squalor and domestic animals, was for Francis, a model of spiritual perfection. the one who had died for sin on the Cross chose to be born a weak child, subject to all. Francis wanted animals, and even inanimate creation to share in the joyful celebration of Christmas.
Augustine Thompson, Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 108-109)
Historians are usually allergic to attributing great historical changes to the actions of an individual, but it’s probably not stretching the facts too far to say that Francis of Assisi was largely responsible for the creation of Christmas as we experience it now: the carols, the manger, the sentiment (and sentimentality) the lay “ownership” of the festivities.
This “affective piety” (i.e. a spirituality of the senses and emotions”) was spread by the Franciscan order to Europe and then Asia and the Americas. Its effects can be seen in everything from the sensuality of Catholic Baroque to those Pentecostal choruses, whose chord changes and simple theology are aimed at a worshipper’s heart rather than his or her head. But the aftermath of Francis’s piety can be seen above all in the tenacity of Christmas as a popular feast, despite the reserve or open disapproval voiced by Christians of a severer mind-set.
As an academic, I’m trained to approach the emotional and intuitive with a certain caution, to think things through carefully and prefer suspending judgement to taking the affective leap that Francis wants me to. That’s no problem. Francis has his job, I have mine. But my constant delight as an historian is also to be reminded that there is another side of life that involves the curative properties of manger straw and preachers imitating sheep from from the pulpit – and that human life would be mighty arid and dreary without it.
Today, I’m following on from Nick’s advent offering last week with another portrayal of the holy family. The one I’ve chosen is by 17th Century French artist and art theorist Charles Le Brun, and is simply titled Silence. Here, we find Mary and Joseph at home with the infant Jesus, who lies, sound asleep on his mother’s lap. To the right of Mary, her mother Anne fusses around the sleeping child just as any good grandmother would, sorting the covers to make sure that her grandson is warm enough. On the left, by Mary’s feet, sits Elizabeth with her own small son, John, who, tradition tells us, grows up to be a baptiser. He’s already a bit of a ‘wild child’ it seems, given his mother’s tight hold on a set of ‘reins’ that she has placed around him, holding him in check as he stretches out to touch the sleeping infant. The men in the picture are, we might presume, John’s father Zechariah and Mary’s husband Joseph. These four adults all look upon Jesus with the tenderness and delight of kith and kin welcoming a new arrival to the family – exactly what Nick spoke about – there is less a sense of sanctified adoration of this special infant than a natural joy in new life and new beginnings.
Meanwhile, Mary sits quietly, holding up a hand to shush the admiring voices around her, for fear that they will wake the sleeping babe. Perhaps she too wants to take a wee nap once her visitors have departed. The little domestic details of the rumpled bedcovers, the fire burning in the stove, and the cat dozing by it remind us of the humanity of this family and the emotions (joy, relief, cold, tiredness) that they would have shared with us all.