A Closer Look at Christmas: My Take

Merry Christmas, everyone!  Alleluia! Christ is born to us.

I know that sounds like a strange greeting in February, but in some Christian traditions the season of Christmas actually runs from December 25 all the way to February 2, to the feast alternatively known as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, and Candlemas.  This celebration commemorates Mary and Joseph’s visit to the Temple in Jerusalem for Mary to undergo her postpartum purification rites and to present their firstborn son according to the traditions of the Law of Moses (Luke 2:22-40), where they encounter Simeon and the Prophet Anna.  The name “Candlemas” derives from the blessing of candles that became a central ritual of this feast, reminding us that (especially in the dark days of winter) Jesus is the light of the world. Stretching Christmas to Candlemas creates a 40-day period that parallels the holy season of Lent leading up to Easter.

I must confess I do not regularly observe Candlemas in any intentional way (though I am quite fond of an old Renaissance tune called, “Now Candlemas Is Come at Last“); but I am going to embrace it this year so that I can say I got this blog up before the end of Christmas!  It has taken me much longer than anticipated to collect my thoughts on these paintings – but here, at long last, are my observations and reflections on the Annunciation paintings of Botticelli and Tanner.  These works of art help me not to lose sight of the Baby Jesus amid the piles of presents and mountains of food that so easily define the Christmas landscape.  I hope they have done (or will do) the same for you as you continue to reflect on the meaning and the miracle of Jesus’ coming.  What I offer here is intended to expand the reach of your own contemplations, not replace them.

First up is Sandro Botticelli’s Annunciazione di Cestello. But before we dive in, some background is in order.  

Botticelli is working within a set tradition or “template” for the Annunciation that developed in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance.  Below are three preceding and contemporary examples for comparison. All three works are distinct but share a palette of common elements and conventions.

Pietro Cavallini, 1291 (top left); Giovanni di Paolo, c. 1435 (bottom left); Fra Angelico, c. 1440 (bottom centre); Dominico Ghirlandaio, c. 1480 (right)

Notice that in all three of these Annunciation scenes Gabriel is situated on the left and Mary on the right.  The setting is stylized and contemporary to the artist. The background is divided into indoor and outdoor space, with Gabriel occupying (or in close proximity to) the open, natural space while, in some fashion, Mary is confined – a double reference, it would seem, to both Mary’s chastity and humanity’s captivity.  Gabriel kneels or bows as Mary either stands or sits, i.e. she holds the posture of the one being honoured.   Gabriel holds a white lily – and if he doesn’t hold it, one is present somewhere in the scene: a symbol of Christ’s unblemished purity and perhaps Mary’s as well. Gabriel’s clothing varies depending on the preference and imagination of the artist, but Mary’s attire is more or less the same save for fashionable flourishes: a blue outer garment covering a red(ish) inner garment. Blue is a colour associated with the earth and the created order.  Red (or, alternatively, gold or white) is associated with heaven and the divine.  Mary’s garb thus identifies her as the “Mother of God”: the maiden who has conceived God’s Son within her mortal womb.

Botticelli works within these established conventions to craft his own distinct yet familiar rendition of the Annunciation.  And in this case, the gospel (rather than the devil) is in the details.

The Setting

Botticelli painted this Annunciation for the Cestello Monastery in Florence, hence the title.  The Tuscan countryside is visible through the window under which Gabriel kneels.  Whether the scene is set inside the monastery or not is unclear; but wherever in Tuscany it is, this is not the room of a peasant girl.  It’s a room of and for the privileged – a room with a view. And what a view!

The doorway with it’s distinctive moulding, opening up onto a veranda with a grand vista  beyond, divides the painting vertically in two.  Gabriel kneels in front of the doorway while the wall hems Mary in.   Grand castles and a meandering river populate the horizon above the angel’s shoulder; but the most distinctive feature of this background is the enormous tree towering above everything in sight.

This tree could symbolise a few different things and Botticelli may intend it to be a double or even triple entendre.  Trees generally symbolise life, and a tree of this height certainly signifies abundant life.  This particular tree may also (or likewise) allude to the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden.  Some portrayals of the Annunciation, such as Giovanni di Paolo’s above, actually feature Adam and Eve in the background because in Romans 5, the Apostle Paul describes Christ as “the second Adam.”  Paul’s argument is that Jesus’ faithfulness and obedience to God (even unto death) reverses and closes the rift Adam and Eve opened between humanity and heaven when they ate of the forbidden fruit.  A medieval Latin hymn, “Ave Maris Stella,” plays on this theme from the feminine side, proclaiming Gabriel’s “Ave” to Mary “transforms the name of Eve,” which is Latin is Eva, or Ave spelled backwards. Thirdly (or additionally) this prominent tree may also prefigure the Cross that looms in Christ’s future, which Paul refers to simply as “the tree” in Galatians 3, echoing the language of Deuteronomy 21.

The Figures

Even though, strictly speaking, Mary is just now learning that God has chosen her to become the mother of the Messiah, Botticelli depicts her already as the “Queen of Heaven.”  Intricate gold lace accents her fine, flowing gowns and a haloed crown sits upon her head.  Gabriel is likewise attired in flowing, silken finery, and he and Mary bow toward each other with outstretched arms; yet it is Gabriel, the messenger from heaven, the angel who lives in the very presence of God, who assumes the more humble posture.  The honour in this scene is Mary’s, not his.  Note, too, Gabriel’s wings.  While Botticelli hasn’t painted Gabriel in a way we could rightly describe as frightening, this isn’t some cute, harmless cherub who has come to visit Mary. These are the wings of a hawk or an eagle – powerful wings, the wings of a bird of prey – signalling that this is a being not to be trifled with.  That he, a formidable agent of God, is humbling himself before this young woman – whom Botticelli has painted physically larger, taking up more space in the scene – drives home the extraordinary importance of who she is and the significance of what she is agreeing to.  My read of Mary’s stance is that this is a moment late in their encounter during which (or just after) she gives her assent to become “the handmaiden of the Lord.”

The Lines

Most of the lines in Annunciazione di Cestello are vertical: the tree, the door-frame, the towers on the castles, the wider, heavier lines on the floor; even Gabriel’s and Mary’s outstretched arms move from low to high. They lead our eyes from earth toward heaven and from the room out into the world beyond the doorway. Something incredible is taking place in this room; but it will not stay confined to this room. 

The lines on the floor also separate Gabriel and Mary.  Yet, Mary’s gown is creeping over the line, breaching the boundary, inching closer to the angel.  A close inspection shows that an ethereal hem of Gabriel’s garment is doing the same. This is one of my favourite details in the painting – the human and the divine drawn closer together at God’s instigation but with Mary’s consent.  It is a subtle but remarkable commentary on the nature of the gospel.   Jesus is coming into the world to obscure lines, break down barriers, and push envelopes of all sorts.  Because crossing the divides that keep us apart is essential for us to experience the abundant life Christ offers us and longs for us to enjoy.

Now, to Tanner:

Henry Ossawa Tanner’s 1898 Annunciation is from a very different artistic mould.  There isn’t intricate detail to pour over or layers symbolism to examine here.   Gone are the elaborate medieval conventions that Botticelli was immersed in, though Tanner does hint at them.  Gabriel remains on the left and Mary on the right. There are archways in the architecture.  Mary is most definitely enclosed; in fact, the entire scene is enclosed.  The archways are filled in.  There are no visible doors or windows.  The outside world appears thoroughly shut out.  Nothing exists in this moment but Gabriel and Mary, and Tanner concentrates all of the power and wonder of the Annunciation in Gabriel’s form and Mary’s face.

Tanner modelled the setting of this painting after the humble dwellings he saw in Palestine while on a tour of the Holy Land.  The unkempt state of her room reveals Mary was not expecting any visitors, much less a messenger from God.  The rug is buckled (By Gabriel’s entrance?  By Mary jumping back when he appeared?)  Her bed is unmade. (She may have just awoken).  She wears a plain, unremarkable nightgown. Her worldly possessions appear few and meagre. This young girl is a peasant, not a lady – much less the queen of heaven. Not yet, anyway.  Her transformation is foreshadowed by the presence of Mary’s traditional colour scheme in the room: the red wall hanging behind her; the blue fabric draped casually over the chair on the right.  The Mary we know, like the Messiah, has yet to be born but she is announced.

Gabriel is depicted as an abstract, fiery column of light shaped like a candle flame.  Yet, this flame has an opening in it.  The wall behind Gabriel is visible through an elongated part in his form. Gabriel doesn’t need to stand in front of a door because, in Tanner’s imagination, he is a portal.  This angel and the news he brings is a gateway to something amazing, new, and previously unimaginable.

The real power of this painting, the thing that my eyes return to again and again, is Mary’s expression. Tanner manages to capture so much in the face of this peasant girl, deep in thought, weighing a proposition she knows will change her life – change the world – forever.  This is a choice with ramifications and consequences. There is fear and wonder in her eyes.  Her lips are pursed.  Is she up for this?  Her gaze is directed not toward the opening in Gabriel’s form (the promise, the possibility of the portal) but higher, to where we might imagine his eyes would be, as if trying to gauge his sincerity and commitment.  Will the Lord’s favour last?

Tanner’s Mary draws me in and prods me to sit with her and ponder the pole-shifting gravity of Gabriel’s visit in the moments before she said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Because we know the rest of the story, we’re often far too quick at Christmastime to assume that “yes” was the only possible answer – or a quick and easy one.  What must it have been like to be confronted with this news, this choice? What would I have done if it had been me?  What am I willing to do for the sake of the gospel, to partner with God in God’s mission to redeem, transform, and heal the world – really?

Candlemas is come at last.  This feast of purification and presentation is a reminder of the messy, risky, unglamorous, very earthly work that living as instruments of the heaven’s peace so often entails, even if we are visited by an archangel.  It’s also a reminder that Christ is indeed the light of the world but that our calling as disciples is to take that light into the world with us.  To live as children of light, in the Apostle Paul’s words (Ephesians 5:8) – all the year long.

Are we up for it?

Onward Into Christmas

Onward into Christmas?  It’s January 6th.  Schools are back in session.  There isn’t a silver bell or a red cup to be found.  This post is a little late, don’t you think?  Shouldn’t you just file it away until IMG_1804December comes ’round again in another 328 shopping days?

Actually, I think January 6th is a perfect day for this post.  Liturgically, today is the day after Christmas in the Western Christian tradition (yesterday was the twelfth day).  In the Eastern Orthodox world, tomorrow (January 7th) is Christmas Day.  Today we also celebrate Epiphany – the commemoration of the Magi (members of a Persian priestly caste) finding and presenting the Christ Child with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

So Christmas isn’t over.  And if we are going to live as the people of Jesus in this new year of 2015, we can’t let it be over anytime soon.  Christmas has to be more than a day or a finite season of lights, trees, gifts, and gingerbread houses, more than a spiritual “diet” we undertake for a little while each December, even as we indulge in all manner of sweets and treats.  Christmas has to become a way of life.

To help us remember and proclaim Christmas before and after December 25 at First Baptist Hyattsville, we’ve created a tiered Nativity.  Rather than a simple manger scene with a few shepherds and animals gathered ’round, my wife, Kristen (the Nativity’s chief dreamer, designer, and set builder), sought to portray the entire narrative from start to finish.  The project became more elaborate and ambitious with each passing week, but it came together beautifully – and at just the right time.

Magi 1If we’ve ever needed to hear, remember, and ponder the Christmas story, we’ve needed it this holiday season.  The end of 2014 was a particularly bleak midwinter.  Clouds of grief have hung low and heavy since autumn: Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. Eric Garner and Daniel Pantaleo. Wenjian Liu and Rafael RamosBradley Stone.  Syria.  ISIS.  Cyber attacks. Peaceful protests turned violent.  News footage edited to make it seem as if protestors were championing violent retaliation when they were not.  132 Pakistani school children massacred.  Just before Christmas Day, I learned that a seminary classmate of mine lost her brave, four-year bout with cancer at age 36.  Just after Christmas Day, a two-year-old somehow managed to shoot his mother dead in a Walmart with the gun she carried in her purse.  Then, this past weekend, I learned that another classmate of mine had committed suicide.  In the wake of all this news, Isaiah’s line about “a people who walked in deep darkness” rings much more prescient and less poetic in my ears.  I have been squinting and straining to see the light shining in this darkness, despite Scripture’s reassurances.

That’s why I have found this Nativity to be so special.  Each scene tells a piece of the story, beginning in the Old Testament with the psalmist lamenting the fate of God’s people. It begins in darkness.  You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground foRuinsr it; it took deep root and filled the land…. Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?  The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it. Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine…. (Psalm 80.8, 12, 14).

And the Lord does see.  The Lord does have regard for this vine. There is a glimmer of light.  Through the prophet Isaiah, God promises that He will redeem, revive, and restore Israel. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations…. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them (Isaiah 61.3-4, 8).

Then an angel of the Lord appears appears to a young woman – living in boondocks of Nazareth, of all places – to proclaim how God will accomplish this redemption and establish this covenant. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you….. Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  

“And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1. 28-33, 38).

Annunciation 2JB

The son whom Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, is carrying is John the Baptizer, the “voice crying in the wilderness” who “prepares the way of the Lord” (Isaiah 40.3; Mark 1.3).  People from Jerusalem and all Judea flock to him, repenting and receiving baptism in the River Jordan. John is the first prophet Israel has seen in generations.  God is moving.  But John’s presence and proclamation is just the prelude. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1.7-8).

Jesus, the one greater than John, the heir to the throne of David, will be a King like no other king.  Fittingly, then, when Mary’s time comes He is not born as other kings are born – though not in the different way we might presume. Jesus is born without earthly fanfare, in a makeshift hotel room, firmly under the thumb of another ruler, Caesar Augustus.  Mary may be expecting the Savior of the world, but she and Joseph must still travel some seventy miles (on foot or by hoof, while she is her third trimester!) from Nazareth to Bethlehem so that they might be counted (and taxed!). In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  (Luke 2.1-5).

MangerRome 1


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is in Bethlehem, while Mary and Joseph are on this compelled journey, that Jesus is born.

That’s why I love and crave this story. Christmas is a reminder that God has not forgotten or forsaken His people, but it is not a sentimental nor antiseptic tale.  It’s the story of how the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, was born in a stable in the thick of the very messy, gritty, and often smelly reality of this world. It’s a story for a world in which things aren’t always as we would have them (for ourselves, our friends, even our enemies). It’s a story about how God sees us through, even when systems and communities and relationships seem corrupt, self- serving, or ruined beyond repair.  It’s a story of hope: that on a dark, mundane night an angel choir exploded the starless sky to sing glory to God in the highest and bring tidings of great joy for all people, because the life that is the light of all people, the Divine Word of God, the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome, became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1.1-14).

But there’s more.  For all its wonder and glory, Christmas isn’t just the story of God acting.  It is the story of God acting in unexpected ways, in unexpected places, through unexpected people.  It’s a story of those people responding to God’s purposes and working in concert with the Holy Spirit to affect change and contribute to a brighter world.

That is the deeper reason why I have returned to this Nativity time and again to pray, ponder, and reflect – why it has helped me to see light in our present darkness. Yes, it conveys the Christmas story beautifully in its artistry; but it also conveys the story through how it was made.  We constructed it almost entirely out of recycled and reclaimed materials, the things we normally discard without a second thought: bottles, cans, paper plates, cardboard boxes, bits of yarn, dryer lent, broken doll parts, paper towel tubes, candy wrappers, egg cartons, newspaper, popsicle sticks, scraps of fabric, styrofoam cups, and a variety of other things.

Nativity in Progress

Donkey

Something beautiful arose out of the piles of junk we collected over several weeks.  And it all came to life through the efforts, donations, and contributions of several people within our congregation: young and old, rich and poor, black and white.

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This Nativity was formed by a community, not merely for a community.

That’s why I believe this Nativity demonstrates tangibly why Christmas is the way forward, through the clouds of grief that cast their shadow over the final weeks of 2014. And that’s why I’m not saving this post until the end of 2015. When we dream and work together, amazing, beautiful things take shape – even when used up, worn out, unwanted stuff is what we have to work with.

The pain and grief that has dominated the news in recent weeks stems largely from division, isolation, and presumption about what people and life can and cannot be. In the Christmas story, division, isolation, and presumption are all challenged and subverted at every turn.  Those who should be most aware of the Messiah’s coming (Herod and his scribes in Jerusalem) are clueless, while a band of pagan priests from the land where Israel was formerly in exile (Persia), have not only seen the Messiah’s star, they have followed it for some distance to pay Him homage.  Shepherds, angels, Jews, Gentiles, the barren and the blessed are all enfolded into God’s redemptive, transformative work.   And the world changed.  That change didn’t happen all at once, and it didn’t happen over night.  The story of Christmas stretches back generations to the psalmists and the prophets, and it extends forward to Jesus and His disciples long after the Magi returned to Persia and Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth.  But change happened.

Let’s resolve to keep Christmas continually before us in 2015 , to embody it now that we’ve celebrated it, to allow it to become the stuff out of which our lives are made.  Repairing and rebuilding “the former devastations” takes effort beyond hope and promise.  It’s ongoing work.  But it is possible!

Christmas isn’t over. Now that Jesus has come, it’s the beginning of why He came.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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