Entering the Christmas liturgy through sacred images

For centuries, Christians have represented the deepest mysteries of the Christian faith in prayerful art, a practice meant to help the faithful participate more fully in the sacred liturgy.

Although many new churches are not as covered in art as was common a few centuries ago, the fruitfulness of praying with religious images has not changed. Meditating on the mysteries of Christmas depicted in icons can help the Christian enter more deeply into this liturgical season.

“[An icon] is not something that necessarily needs a detailed explanation. Rather, it’s an image that is understood in the context of the liturgy,” said Father Ioan Gotia, DCJM, a bi-ritual (Byzantine and Latin) priest, artist and expert in Byzantine iconography. “Its role is not so much to tell the story of what happened as it is to help us become present in the mystery, so that we may not only remember but also partake in it.”

Father Gotia, who studied under artists such as Father Marko I. Rupnik, treasures his childhood, surrounded by the icons in his parents’ home. His mother’s artistic abilities led him to appreciate and develop his skills when he began writing icons at the age of 14.

The young artist would go on to obtain a doctorate from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome with a concentration in Byzantine and Marian Iconography. He has painted numerous murals in Austria, Italy, the United States and Spain, where he currently resides.

“Every action of Jesus encompasses and embraces all of time. In Christmas we are able to be present in Bethlehem, in the mystery, accompanied by the liturgy,” he said.

The following pieces are representations of the Nativity done by Father Gotia, who explained the basic meaning of their symbols. One of these works is found in the rectory chapel of St. Mary’s parish in Littleton, Colo.

I. Gotia, DCJM. “The Nativity,” 2017. 

1. Jesus is wrapped in diapers but also in linen cloths, as the dead prior to burial. This indicates the beginning of Jesus’ mission to save man through his passion, a reality also expressed by the red cross in his halo.

2. The Virgin gives her son to Joseph, in his mission as foster father, in one icon and gives him to us in the other, inviting us to partake in the mystery.

3. St. Joseph looks at us in both icons, inviting us with his hand to draw near Jesus. He also places his hand on the shepherd’s shoulder, a representation of man, bringing him into the mystery.

4. All of creation offers the child Jesus something: Mary, her being; Joseph, his protection; the animals, their home; the shepherds their sheep and food; the star, its light…

5. The birds on the trees sing for Jesus, referencing Psalm 83: “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself… at your altars, O Lord… Blessed are those who dwell in your house.” It is Christ who prepares for us a dwelling place.

I. Gotia, DCJM. “The adoration of the shepherds,” 2015. Rectory chapel, St. Mary’s Parish, Littleton, Colo.

6. The mountains and trees are shown green, as in the summer, even though Jesus was born in the cold months, to signify that his birth brings about the new creation.

7. Mary is always portrayed with three stars: on her head and on each shoulder, as a sign of the gift of her virginity before, during and after birth. It also indicates the child’s divine origin.

8. The angel adores the child with his hands covered, recalling the humeral veil used by priests and recognizing him as true God.

9. The stars are portrayed inside the cave to denote that where Jesus is, heaven is present. He is depicted as victor from the beginning: His light overcomes all darkness.

10. The child is laid on the straw because he came to be our nourishment. He was born in Bethlehem, which means “house of bread” in Hebrew.

11. Jesus enjoys our gifts, as simple as they may be, and awaits them with open arms. They are not so much material things but primarily ourselves.

 

COMING UP: Should the Church talk about money? If we follow Christ’s teaching, yes.

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In Luke Chapter 3, three different groups asked John the Baptist what they should do to bear the fruit of repentance. John gives three answers: 1) Everyone should share clothes and food with the poor; 2) Tax collectors shouldn’t pocket extra money; and 3) Soldiers should be content with their wages and not extort money. Each answer John gives is related to money and possessions, but no one asked him about that! They only ask how to demonstrate the fruit of spiritual transformation. They don’t grasp John the Baptist’s perspective, that he could not talk about spirituality without talking about how to handle money and possessions.

Jesus puts some harsh words in God’s mouth in the “Parable of the Rich Fool.” In Luke 12:20, we hear: “But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong? Thus will it be for one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.”

Alternatively, Jesus provides some great promises on both sides of that parable. In Luke 11:41: “…give alms and behold, everything will be clean for you.” And in Luke 12:33: “…give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven.”

When my wife Cathy and I were experiencing our conversion to the Lord in the early 1990s, we decided we were going to try to live out our Catholic faith to the full: in our attending Mass every Sunday, in our family and in our checkbook.

So, despite four young kids and no way of knowing if we could afford to send them to Catholic school or college, we started tithing. One thing it dramatically did was contribute to our growth in faith and trust in God. We truly believed in God’s promise that He never will be outdone in generosity. And now, 25 years later, we can only rejoice that we still are doing fine despite paying for Catholic schools, colleges and three daughters’ weddings! So what, that we are driving two cars that have 365,000 miles between them!

When we created our will back then, we decided to leave 10% of our assets to the Church. After I became President of The Catholic Foundation in 2012, we became aware of the concept to “treat the Church like one of your children.” We thought that made a lot of sense, so we changed our will to do just that … such that our four children and The Catholic Foundation will each receive 20% of our estate.

Today, we are not sure how our kids will be able to do what we did; with Denver’s crazy housing market, how will they be able to afford Catholic school for their kids, future colleges and, someday, weddings? It looks daunting for them. Shouldn’t we leave them 100% instead of just 80%? For us, it was an easy decision—better to give them a portion with God’s blessing than to think they’d be better off with it all. Besides, they are helping themselves have the best chance possible.

How? By doing their own tithing! I remember years ago, when the business manager at our parish called me to ensure that it was okay that our daughter had made a large contribution to the parish. Cathy and I were unaware she had done so. What had she done? She had tithed her high school graduation gift money. You can imagine how proud we felt.

A “planned gift” through a will or another avenue is the easiest gift to make because it only gets made when we can’t use it anymore – at least, not in this world. Maybe it can be better used by God and his Church. Listen to Revelation 14:13: “I heard a voice from Heaven say, ‘write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, said the Spirit, let them find rest from their labors, for their works accompany them.’ ”

Cathy and I want our works to accompany us, as we are sure you do, too. We have been saved by Jesus for eternal life – let us make sure our faith in that is manifested in our living and in our giving.

Would you prayerfully discern how God is calling you to steward the assets He has entrusted to you? We hope we and you hear these words someday from Jesus (Matthew 25:34): “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Deacon Steve Stemper is CEO & President of The Catholic Foundation. Please contact him at (303) 468-9885 if you would like a meeting to discuss how your planned giving can be used for God’s Kingdom.