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: Swole.Catholic helps people strengthen body and soul

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St. Augustine once said, “Take care of your body as if you were going to live forever; and take care of your soul as if you were going to die tomorrow.”

Humans are both body and soul and both must be strengthened. This is the reason for the existence of Swole.Catholic, a group of people who dedicate themselves to nurturing their soul while strengthening their body, and through their ministry, motivate others to do the same.

According to Paul McDonald, founder of Swole.Catholic, they focus on encouraging faithful fitness. “We must take care of our temple of the Holy Spirit, because our bodies are one of God’s greatest gifts to us,” he said.

McDonald solidified the idea of faith and fitness when he was a sophomore in college. While “going through a huge moment in my life, at the same time I was really learning about the gym and learning ethical statements on my own. Both things clicked together,” he told the Denver Catholic. As a young guy, he started bible studies, and in those studies, he always had an analogy back to the gym.

He decided to make shirts for him and the guys in the bible study during his senior year. The shirts ended up becoming good conversation starters, and he decided he needed to do something with it — evangelize and motivate others to take care of their body and soul.

Thus Swole.Catholic was born. “Swole” is a slang term for bulking one’s muscles up from going to the gym, and of course, the Catholic part is self-explanatory — not only because of the Church but also for our faith and how it defines us in all we do. Swole.Catholic launched officially in Jan 2017.

The ministry consists of a website which provides resources to helps people with Catholic gyms, Catholic workouts, Catholic trainers, podcasts as well as workout wear.

The workout wear works as an evangelization tool. The word “Catholic” is printed on the front of the shirts and a bible verse is placed on the back.

“This raises questions or interest in others. It also works as a reminder of the purpose of the workout,” McDonald said. He added, “Most of the gyms we are going to have mirrors and all that, making you focus into yourself.” But the real purpose of the workout, as the members of Swole.Catholic say, is to strengthen your body and soul to live a healthy life.

Swole.Catholic also has rosary bands, a simple decade wrist band that people can wear while they workout and be flipped off at any time to pray a quick decade.

“Because everyone’s faith journey is different and everyone’s fitness journey is different, what we are trying to do is connect people with people [for them] to be able to have the correct support with their faith and fitness,” McDonald said.

That is why Swole.Catholic now has outposts around the country, with passionate Catholic members who love to help and inspire others in the fitness world while pursuing God in everything they do.

“Each one has its own flavor,” McDonald said. “In Florida we have a rosary run group where a bunch of girls meet up and pray rosary while they go for a run.” Among the outposts, there is also a group of guys in North Dakota who do a bible study and lift together. Similar to these two groups, members from other states have formed their own Catholic fitness groups and are now part of Swole.Catholic, including in Texas, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio and Wyoming and more.

“We encourage faithful fitness,” McDonald concluded. “We think your fitness fits in your faith as much as faith fits in your fitness. We are body and soul and we need to be building both.”

To join a group or a workout, visit swolecatholic.com or find them on Facebook.