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: Father Jan Mucha remembered for his ‘joy and simplicity’

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When Father Marek Ciesla was 11 years old, he encountered a priest in his hometown in northern Poland who was visiting his parish on mission.

“I was impressed,” said Father Ciesla. “A couple of my friends and I were talking about how energetic, how wonderful this priest was. I think in this way he inspired us a little bit to follow the call to the priesthood.”

The priest was Father Jan Mucha, and little did Father Ciesla know that decades later and an ocean away, he would reunite with the man that inspired him and his friend to pursue the priesthood.

In 2010 when Father Mucha was retiring from his role as pastor of St. Joseph Polish Catholic Church in Denver, Father Ciesla was sent from Poland to the Archdiocese of Denver to take his place.

The priests spent two days together, and Father Ciesla was struck by the familiarity of Father Mucha.

“For some reason, the way he was talking and the words he was using, something rang a bell,” he said. “I asked him if he remembers visiting my parish. And he said, ‘Oh, yeah, I had it on my list. I remember.’”

Father Ciesla was amazed that the man he was there to replace was the same one who had impacted his life all those years ago.

“God works in mysterious ways,” said Father Ciesla. “I never thought I would meet him again.”

Father Mucha passed away March 21 after serving the archdiocese for 40 years. He was 88 years old.

Father Mucha was born March 16, 1930 in Gron, Poland to parents Kazimierz and Aniela Mucha. He was one of five children. Father Mucha attended high school in Kraków and went on to study philosophy and theology at a seminary in Tarnów.

Father Mucha was ordained December 19, 1954 in Tarnów by Auxiliary Bishop Karol Pękala. He served at St. Theresa Parish in Lublin, Sacred Heart Parish in Florynka and as a Latin teacher at Sacred Heart Novice House in Mszana Dolna.

He was incardinated into the Archdiocese of Denver on April 20, 1978. Before he was granted retirement status in August of 2010, he served at St. Joseph Polish for nearly 40 years.

“Father Mucha was dedicated to his people and there was a joy about him,” said Msgr. Bernard Schmitz, who had known Father Mucha since his own ordination in 1974 and more recently within his former role as Vicar for Clergy.

“I admired his joy and simplicity,” said Msgr. Schmitz. “He seemed to have no guile and what you saw is what you got. He was very proud of his Polish heritage and was unafraid to be Polish.”

Father Mucha’s move to the United States came about after he visited St. Joseph Polish while on vacation. The pastor at the time was sick, and parishioners asked Father Mucha to stay.

After receiving approval from his superiors in Poland and the archbishop in Denver, Father Mucha did stay, and ended up serving the parish for nearly four decades.

“He was happy to serve here,” said Father Ciesla. “All the time, he was a man of faith. He kept his eye on Jesus.”

Msgr. Schmitz believes Father Mucha’s faithfulness and tenacity as a priest will leave a lasting impression on those he served.

“He was dedicated to the priesthood and didn’t want to retire until he was sure his people would be well taken care of,” said Msgr. Schmitz. “He could come across as tough, but really he was a compassionate person [with] a heart open to the Lord’s work.”