Four meditations for Christmas using great works of art

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

Karna Swanson

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: Q&A: Cardinal Stafford: “The Eucharist has been the center of my life”

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On the dawn of his 60th anniversary of priestly ordination, Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, archbishop emeritus of Denver, reflects on the origins and fruits of his vocation. He will celebrate a Mass in thanksgiving with Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 17, at 10:30 a.m.

DC: What were your desires as a young man and how did God call you to the priesthood?            

Cardinal Stafford: Images of God arose very early in my life. From my parents’ encounter with Jesus in the confessional, concrete impressions developed into images. Those images spoke to me of God’s holiness and beauty. I understood that He was great and forgiving.

Reality became complex with more birthdays. The brutality of the 20th century… insinuated itself into my world-view. I was bewildered by the horror of that era… A few years later I also discovered St. Augustine’s joy in reflecting upon the beauty of the Creator of the world in his Confessions… I learned that the love of Christ transforms our unloveliness into God’s beauty.

Both the beauty of the Ancient One and the rub of evil have coexisted in my faith and experience. Jesus’s invitation, “The laborers are few”, resonated in my soul.  The fact that the priestly vocation is totally given over to the “ministry of reconciliation” became the North Star of my life.

Archbishop J. Francis Stafford blesses the altar of St. Michael the Archangel Church in Aurora, Colo. (Photo by Denver Catholic Register)

DC: What practices have helped you remain faithful to your vocation during these 60 years?

Cardinal Stafford: When awakening each morning, I recite a single verse from Psalm 51, “Lord, open my lips and my mouth will proclaim your praise.” Three times it is repeated. Thereafter, the grace of God sets the day on the right track. It becomes a song of praise to God. With hard practice it daily gathers momentum. It places front and center the most beautiful mystery of the Christian faith: The Triune God. The love and beauty of the Most Holy Trinity light up the whole day even when God appears more distant than near.

The psalmist has been a great catechist. He has taught me that human beings are doxological (people of praise) by nature especially in the Dark Night – not only as individuals, but also within community… Doxological prayer has led me to appreciate why St. Augustine wrote, “The goal of all Christian watchfulness and all Christian progress is a pious and sober understanding of the Trinity.”

Cardinal James Stafford holds a relic of St. Teresa of Calcutta during a Mass celebrating her feast day at St. Joseph’s Parish on September 5, 2016, in Denver. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

DC: What have been some of the challenges and highlights of your priesthood?

Cardinal Stafford: The challenges: Christians in Europe and North America are struggling with the “juggernaut” of secularization… Generally, its roots are found in the fact that most Europeans and Americans today find themselves thrust into the universe without any foundation for living. Most imagine themselves in a free-fall through space with unintelligible entrances and exits. The challenge is how to confront this unprecedented reality. The pastoral solutions have seldom been forthcoming.

The highlights of my priesthood: Visiting the home-bound. They are the hidden pillars of every local Church. Beyond the home-bound, I have always felt that Colorado’s response to the invitation to celebrate the 1993 World Youth Day was the measure beyond all measure. In other words, the event was from God… [and] God was delighted with Coloradans.

Pope John Paul II thanks Cardinal Stafford for his leadership in organizing World Youth Day in Denver, 1993. (Photo by Denver Catholic Register)

DC: Who have been your greatest role models and how have they impacted your vocation?

Cardinal Stafford: My mother and father have been my greatest Christian role models. Their love and friendship were life-long and mutual. The two were the best of friends. Their life together, ten years after their marriage, was tested severely… [Tuberculosis] struck [my mother] with extreme severity.

She required prolonged hospitalization that included three major surgical operations over a period of nearly three years. Throughout that time her faith, courage and love remained ever-present signs along the road. My father’s love for his wife never faltered during her hospitalization… His presence to her was reassuring, quiet, and unassuming.  The grace of the sacrament of marriage sustained both of them and was an enormously important witness for me.

Cardinal Stafford celebrates Mass during World Youth Day in Denver, 1993. (Photo by James Baca/Denver Catholic Register)

DC: Reflecting on your priestly experience, what practices are essential to the Catholic priest of the New Evangelization?

Cardinal Stafford: The Eucharist has been the center of my life… Over the years, I learned that priestly celibacy was related to the eschatological nature of the Eucharist.  In 390 AD bishops at the Council of Carthage underlined this connection, “That holy bishops and priests of God…. observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us endeavor to keep.”

I’ve reflected for over four decades over the forthrightness of their statement. I still ask myself why the ancient bishops chose the phrase “in all simplicity.”  Their choice was related to the priest’s acting “in the person of Christ”. That’s Eucharistic and the Eucharist is doxological. Their assertion that clerical celibacy had apostolic origins surprised me.

Finally, a lay friend taught me one of the greatest graces of these sixty years, “Gratitude for the gift is shown only by allowing it to make one fruitful,” from Meister Eckhart. That is my prayer in celebrating my 60th anniversary of priestly ordination.