As we are just five sleeps from Christmas Day, the Auckland TheoRel Advent calendar will follow the tradition of previous years and focus for this last week on artistic depictions of the nativity story. Starting us off, a beautiful image of the central event in the nativity – the birth of Jesus. In the gospels, this event is mentioned almost in passing (Matt 1.25; Luke 2.7). Mary gives birth to Jesus in the byre they are sheltering in, with only Joseph present to serve as attending midwife. It’s a little while before visitors arrive (more of which tomorrow), so the couple have a moment to sit and reflect on how this event will shape their future. And while this hiatus in the action is not given explicit mention in the gospels, it has been captured beautifully by the artist I spoke about in yesterday’s Advent offering, Henry Ossawa Tanner.
In this image, Mary and Joseph look less like the jubilant parents of a newborn than two people caught up in a journey that was not of their own planning. Mary sits bathed in an ethereal light, not touching or looking at the infant by her side; instead, she stares into the fireplace, lost in thought. Joseph, meanwhile, stands a little bit away, his eyes closed, with an expression of uncertainty and even sadness on his face. Distancing himself from his family, he appears at a loose end, not entirely sure if he belongs. He knows that the baby is not his – he knows that his wife-to-be has undergone an experience in which he can never fully share. Both he and Mary seem to apprehend that something monumental has occurred here – their lives have undergone a seismic shift from which they will never fully recover. And so, before the brouhaha begins – before the visitors start pouring in and the drama continues to unfold, they make the most of this quiet moment together, with its strange mix of intimacy and withdrawal, lost in their own, and each other’s, thoughts. Meanwhile, the infant Jesus, lying between them and glowing in the gloom, appears, at least momentarily, to have been forgotten.
Tanner also painted a picture of Mary herself with her newborn son, which again shows this mother deep in thought, and appearing to ignore the child that lies to her right. These images remind us that, while Jesus is the central character in the nativity story, there are two other crucial players within this narrative whom, in the excitement of the birth event, we all too often overlook.