Four meditations for Christmas using great works of art

'Wake up, O man, it was for you that God was made man!'

Karna Lozoya

For a Catholic, our faith is not about a book, but about the Word, and at Christmas we celebrate the moment when the “Word became flesh (John 1:14).

The most striking aspect of the story of God becoming man is that, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “it really happened.”

St. Augustine enjoins us not to gloss over the mystery of the Incarnation. “Wake up, O man,” he proclaims, “it was for you that God was made man! For you, I say, was God made man.”

As we celebrate Christmas, let’s try to “wake up” and meditate on this great mystery, using as our guide some great masterpieces of art currently housed in the National Gallery in London.

“Answer quickly, O Virgin”

“The Annunciation” (1449-1459), by Filippo Lippi The decisive chapter of our story happened in a very insignificant town, in the silence of a house where a young girl received an announcement. The young Mary, in her total purity and beauty, opened her heart to God’s message.

Filippo Lippi painted “The Annunciation” (1449-1459) in a very particular setting: a garden. It is not difficult to think of another garden, where Eve heard another voice —the serpent’s— and introduced sin into our world.

Mary, the new Eve, in a new garden that offers a new paradise, was meditating on a promise when the angel came. For many, the text in Mary’s hands is a copy of the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, where she was reading that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”

God, all powerful, in a mysterious decision of his love, chooses to depend on the answer of a young lady. The eternal plan of salvation expects her answer.

St. Bernard described like no one else what happened in those seconds between the angel’s annunciation and Mary’s “yes”: “Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word.”

The crib and the Cross

“Madonna of the Meadow” (1505), by Giovanni Bellini

A painting by Giovanni Bellini helps us to delve deeper into the mystery of Christ’s Nativity.

Aside from the simple, rural background in “Madonna of the Meadow” (1505), there is something powerful and subtle. This apparently joyful depiction of Mary and Jesus has a moving resemblance with another work Bellini painted in the same year—a strikingly similar Pieta.

Mary is contemplating her tender Son, knowing that he is the suffering servant announced by Isaiah, knowing that he will die for us.

As St. Gregory of Nyssa writes: “If one inquires into the mystery, he will say rather, not that death happened to him as a consequence of birth, but birth itself was assumed on the account of death.”

Light source

“The Nativity at Night” (1490), by Geertgen tot Sint Jans

“The Nativity at Night” (1490), by Geertgen tot Sint Jans

Geertgen tor sin Jans painted in the Netherlands a small devotional work—“The Nativity at Night” (1490)—that shows another aspect of the mystery of the Nativity.

The dark night would be just darkness, had the Son not come for us. The son is born and gives light, he “is the true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world (Jn 1:9).

The light of this baby causes a great impression in those present in the manger. Even the angels are in awe (as we can see in the funny expression of the little angel). Joseph, the faithful Joseph, shows his reverence for the mystery that he has to protect, standing there at one side.

Mary is all love, marveling at what is happening, contemplating the prophecies, believing what seems impossible: her little baby is the God almighty.

 

 

 

Venite, Adoremus

Originally an altarpiece for a Marian chapel, Jan Gossaert’s “Adoration” (1510-1515) invites us to see and contemplate the Son of God, adored by the nine choirs of angels. His glory is in contrast with the human glory of the kings: Naked, he is the center of the painting.

The Adoration of the Kings (1510-1515), by Jan Gossaert

“The Adoration of the Kings” (1510-1515), by Jan Gossaert

He is held by Mary, whose dignity is remarkable. She brings us Jesus, who appears as our priest. In what perhaps is the most moving message of this masterpiece, Jesus receives one of the gifts of a magi, and seems to be simply playing with the gold.

But if we look carefully, we will notice that the gold coins come in a vessel that is a ciborium, and the coins resemble hosts, and Jesus is actually holding a host and offering Communion to a kneeling king, who has removed his hat and humbly adores the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Not in vain, then, Bethlehem means “house of bread.”

The final theme is the presence of ruins. The coming of Christ and its acceptance by the magi, who represent the gentiles, indicates the definitive end of the old times—the ruins—and the beginning of the new.

With Christ there is hope for change, for renewal. Our own lives, with their ruins and old things that need change, can find joy at Christmas in Jesus, who makes “all things new” (Revelation 21:5).

Father Daniel Cardó is a priest of the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, and pastor of Holy Name Parish in Sheridan, Colorado.

COMING UP: Relativism: An obstacle to the pursuit of truth

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When I was a kid, my favorite television show was The Partridge Family. Mostly because I was completely enamored of the late David Cassidy, whom I was convinced I would marry some day. But also because the show featured just the kind of mildly corny humor a seven year old is inclined to enjoy.

I remember one joke in particular. Keith (David Cassidy) is trying to give big brotherly advice to Danny (Danny Bonaduce). He says “If you just believe, you can be anything you want to be.”

Danny responds, “Great! I want to be a black woman.” Laugh track ensues. Because everybody knows that a pale white, red-headed, freckle-faced kid cannot grow up to be a black woman.

I was thinking about that scene as I was listening to Bishop Robert Barron Feb. 6, giving a riveting talk on relativism to a packed house here in Denver. As he spoke about the philosophical underpinnings of relativistic thinking, I realized that joke couldn’t be told today. Because, as a society, we don’t seem to agree that race, gender, or just about anything else, are based in any kind of objective truth.

Bishop Barron spoke of a video you may have seen. A rather short male interviewer asks college students what they would think if he told them he identifies as a woman. Then an Asian woman. Then a 6’4” Asian woman. They hesitate at times, but all ultimately agree that if that is his “truth,” then he is indeed entitled to be a tall Asian woman.

That is the ultimate expression of relativism.

Relativism, boiled down, is essentially the belief that there is no “objective” truth that is true for all. Rather, we as individuals, each establish our own subjective “truths,” and we live “authentically” to the extent that we honor these individual “truths.”

The speed with which we have descended down this path is breathtaking. When I was in my 20’s (which was not long ago at all — right???), I used to debate abortion at Berkeley. Not exactly a friendly audience — I remember mentally noting exits, including windows, that I could utilize if things got out of hand. But they showed up, and they listened, because there was still some understanding in society that there was such a thing as truth, and hence an openness to listen to others to see if together we could arrive at that truth. Or, at the very least, that I could employ the truth as I see it to convince you that your understanding of the truth is flawed.

Not so today. Open discussion of controversial issues is almost nonexistent on most college campuses. Of course. If I have my truth and you have your truth, what would be the point? We are just supposed to respect each others’ truths and move on.

But the problem is that we all have to play together in the same sandbox. Somebody’s truth has to rule our social interaction. If we can’t come to an agreement about whose truth is truer, then the only option left is force. And so, instead of listening to what you have to say, I attempt to forcibly shut you down. I smash windows. I disrupt your talk. Or, alternatively, I call on the authority of the university to do that dirty work for me while I hide in a safe space with my crayons and puppy videos.

Pope Benedict XVI called relativism a “dictatorship.” And, ironically, it is. The philosophy that purports to allow everyone to believe as he wishes, actually allows no one to believe in anything but relativism. And because there need be no rhyme nor reason behind any individual belief, enforcement through persuasion becomes impossible. Hence, the inevitable clash of ideologies. And it will be the stronger, not the most persuasive, who will prevail.

Parents, please — teach your children that there is such a thing as truth. That yes, we may disagree with others about what that truth is. That we respect people — all people — regardless of their beliefs. (Another objective truth.) But beneath the disagreement, there is a truth. There is a God or there isn’t. Jesus Christ is divine or He isn’t. Sexual expression has an inherent meaning or it doesn’t. Gender is fixed or it isn’t.

[And parents, if you want help with this, get your hands on Chris Stefanik’s book Absolute Relativism, and check out his YouTube videos on the same subject.]

In any disagreement about objective truths, someone is right and someone is wrong. Or perhaps both are partially wrong and neither grasps the full truth. But the truth is there.

In the old days, our goal was to find it.