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: John Paul II, youth minister

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Pole that he was, Karol Wojtyla had a well-developed sense of historical irony. So from his present position in the Communion of Saints, he might be struck by the ironic fact that the Synod on “Youth, Faith, and Vocational Discernment,” currently underway in Rome, coincides with the 40th anniversary of his election as Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978. What’s the irony? The irony is that the most successful papal youth minister in modern history, and perhaps all history, was largely ignored in Synod-2018’s working document. And the Synod leadership under Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri seems strangely reluctant to invoke either his teaching or his example.

But let’s get beyond irony. What are some lessons the Synod might draw from John Paul II, pied piper of the young, on this ruby anniversary of his election?

1. The big questions remain the same.

Several bishops at Synod-2018 have remarked that today’s young people are living in a completely different world than when the bishops in question grew up. There’s obviously an element of truth here, but there’s also a confusion between ephemera and the permanent things.

When Cardinal Adam Sapieha assigned young Father Wojtyla to St. Florian’s parish in 1948, in order to start a ministry to the university students who lived nearby, things in Cracow were certainly different than they were when Wojtyla was a student at the Jagiellonian University in 1938-39. In 1948, Poland was in the deep freeze of Stalinism and organized Catholic youth work was banned. The freewheeling social and cultural life in which Wojtyla had reveled before the Nazis shut down the Jagiellonian was no more, and atheistic propaganda was on tap in many classrooms. But Wojtyla knew that the Big Questions that engage young adults — What’s my purpose in life? How do I form lasting friendships? What is noble and what is base? How do I navigate the rocks and shoals of life without making fatal compromises? What makes for true happiness? — are always the same. They always have been, and they always will be.

To tell today’s young adults that they’re completely different is pandering, and it’s a form of disrespect. To help maturing adults ask the big questions and wrestle with the permanent things is to pay them the compliment of taking them seriously. Wojtyla knew that, and so should the bishops of Synod-2018.

2. Walking with young adults should lead somewhere.

Some of the Wojtyla kids from that university ministry at St. Florian’s have become friends of mine, and when I ask them what he was like as a companion, spiritual director, and confessor, they always stress two points: masterful listening that led to penetrating conversations, and an insistence on personal responsibility. As one of them once put it to me, “We’d talk for hours and he’d shed light on a question, but I never heard him say ‘You should do this.’ What he’d always say was, ‘You must choose’.” For Karol Wojtyla, youth minister, gently but persistently compelling serious moral decisions was the real meaning of “accompaniment” (a Synod-2018 buzzword).

3. Heroism is never out of fashion.

When, as pope, John Paul II proposed launching what became World Youth Day, most of the Roman Curia thought he had taken leave of his senses: young adults in the late-20th century just weren’t interested in an international festival involving catechesis, the Way of the Cross, confession, and the Eucharist. John Paul, by contrast, understood that the adventure of leading a life of heroic virtue was just as compelling in late modernity as it had been in his day, and he had confidence that future leaders of the third millennium of Christian history would answer that call to adventure.

That didn’t mean they’d be perfect. But as he said to young people on so many occasions, “Never, ever settle for anything less than the spiritual and moral grandeur that God’s grace makes possible in your life. You’ll fail; we all do. But don’t lower the bar of expectation. Get up, dust yourself off, seek reconciliation. But never, ever settle for anything less than the heroism for which you were born.”

That challenge — that confidence that young adults really yearn to live with an undivided heart — began a renaissance in young adult and campus ministry in the living parts of the world Church. Synod-2018 should ponder this experience and take it very, very seriously.