On the calendar of the world Christmas is over; now it’s time to get ready to party our way into a New Year,
but on the calendar of the church it’s still Christmas which stretches out for 12 days, to the Festival of the Epiphany, when those travelers from the East came with gifts to lay before the Child and “pay him homage.”
Today, on this fourth Day in the count of the twelve between the celebration of the Birth of Jesus and their visi we have time to take in what all this means, and one of the best ways is to view a sampling of “Christmas on Canvas,” today’s sermon through artists and reflections on their works of art.
Since the fourth century artists and sculptors have focused on the details read in Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels and the Apostle Paul’s short, but profound line in his letter to the Galatians which we recited as today’s reading (Galatians 4:4-7), beginning with the proclamation: But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.
“Born of a woman” born of Mary, who, with the Christ Child, is a theme used as a devotional object for prayer.
On the other hand, works of art that take in the whole scene may be a busy painting with so much happening that it takes many hours of gazing, and even then many details may be missed.
One of the best examples is this elaborate 15th century painting by the Italian artist, Domenico Ghirlandaio was commissioned to create a large fresco and altarpiece for a family’s burial chapel in the church of Santa Trinita, Florence. (Visit the webpage to see the painting; type in title ad artist's name)
The altarpiece, the Nativity and Adoration of Shepherds, depicts the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child surrounded by shepherds and animals. In the background, a large group of people approaches nativity from a winding road, traveling from cities in the distance.
The colors in the foreground are clear and bright while the colors in the background are dull and have a bluish tinge. The sky fades from a rich blue to an off white when it reaches the mountaintop. This technique, known as atmospheric perspective, uses color and saturation to show depth similarly to the way we perceive distance in the real world. The artist also creates the illusion that the background is receding into a vanishing point. The road curving along the left side of the painting leads the eye back to the vanishing point. The overall impression is that the painting is like a mirror that has the viewer looking into and experiencing the nativity scene…with subtleties waiting to be discovered.
Unlike earlier artwork which showed figures in fixed positions – all gazing at the Christ Child, here the positions are varied and dramatic.
The shepherd to the right of the manger is pointing to the baby, showing that the Christ Child is the most important feature of the painting. In addition, the Virgin Mary and the other Shepherds are gazing directly at the baby Jesus, their focus is on him. Joseph is looking up and away…for what? Why? Sensing danger that will come, or still trying to understand his place in the story? Or, as one art critic proposes, he is seeing the procession of people; it is he who is in communication with us…when we let ourselves be mirrored in the crowd approaching the Christ Child. (Adapted from hannahbennett236.blogspot.com/.../nativity-and-adoration-of-shepherds, Jan 18, 2012 – Formal Analysis)
Survey the whole scene and see that Rome and Jerusalem are in the background, the Christ Child is front and center – a new King of God’s kingdom where all will be God’s children, but notice the cost; behind the meager bed of straw is a stone casket. The viewer is made to see Christ’s death already foreshadowed in the symbols surrounding his birth. In Paul’s words, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
There are many more paintings from past centuries on into the present. One began as a blank canvas at Brigham Young University where the artist-professor, Brian Kershisnik, admits being carried away, in his words “commandeered by the Lord,” and many who stand before the huge work of art and feel themselves being swept up into the vast company of angels.
The women attending Mary have looks on their faces that say, without words, this is holy work, the Birth of all births. Over in the lower corner a mother dog tends pups that were born days’ earlier. The angels are not watching them; only the Baby Who is “Emmanuel – God with us.”
Notice Joseph, confused, perplexed, knowing an unknown future lies ahead. One angel closest to him, yet unnoticed by him, reaches out to place a comforting hand on his head. And when we let ourselves be pulled into the scene, our head, too. (Reference: An Experience Shared with Brian Kershisnik’s “Nativity”by Sam Payne, 2007) Visit this site to see the painting.
Both paintings, though centuries apart, have the capacity to pull the viewer into the drama.
Today’s Gospel extends the Christmas gallery into the wing many do not stop to see; they miss two who waited a lifetime to be part of the story: Simeon and Anna, who remind us that Christmas is not only for children, but for the oldest of the old. (Visit webpages to see paintings of both Simeon and Anna.)
People like to see a church filled with children and youth, not all those “old people.” But- as the story unfolds – the oldest are the ones who take on prominent roles; Simeon who happened into the temple that day and raises a song of praise to God: “…for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
Now he can die in peace and with hope in God’s future.
84-year-old Anna has been in the temple since she was widowed seven years after she was married. Her words of praise are directed to the people; she has a new reason to live; she has a new mission, to tell others what God has done and to begin to live into God’s new future, in Jesus Christ.
Somewhere in those paintings artists hope we might find ourselves; step into that role and let the Story become ours, carried forward into our life. Amen,