When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. [John 16:21, NRSV]
From time immemorial, doing theology could be and often was a dangerous and even life-shortening occupation for some. Theologising that God always puts people before the Law, cost Jesus his life. Claiming Jesus Christ to be the Son of God caused Saint Stephen to be stoned to death. Respecting the immutability of God and insisting upon the subordination of the Son to the Father had Arius excommunicated. In the fourth century Christological controversies, priests and bishops were deposed, imprisoned, mobbed and lynched. In the fifth century, when Pelagius opposed Augustine on the theology of grace and free will, insisting on the human capacity and hence the duty to do good and avoid sin, Augustine hunted this ascetic moralist down and had him pronounced a heretic. Church history is replete with instances of religious people in positions of power and influence demonstrating no qualms in committing atrocities against other religious people who happened or dared to hold theological views different from theirs.
The dangers inherent in doing theology notwithstanding, we must insist that salvation is not entirely the business of God’s. As Luke spotlighted God’s dependency on the consent of Mary for the very idea of Incarnation to begin to work, Matthew drove home the message that upon the active and sacrificial collaboration of Joseph, the very survival of Mary and the infant Son of God she bore in her womb depended.
Now, we want to cast light on the fact that birthing the Word of God, that unimaginable grace of cooperating with God to incarnate Emmanuel – “God with us” (Matthew 1:23) – was a thoroughly exhausting experience for Mary and Joseph.
Almost every artistic depiction of the nativity that we have seen shows Mary and Joseph kneeling over the manger adoring the Baby Jesus. That might be the case a long while after they had struggled through the anxiety, the labour, and the delivery. What is commonly missing is an honest and truthful representation of how absolutely exhausted Mary must have been, and how terrified Joseph must actually feel at the time.
Breaking that lacuna is a delightful piece by Julius Garibaldi Melchers in his 1891 composition entitled quite simply “The Nativity”. In style realistic and in goal emotive, the artist in this exceptional portrayal of Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus offers hints of inevitable struggle in bringing to birth the Word of God. Capturing the scene immediately after the birth of the Savior, Melchers leaves us with much to contemplate.
- Mary the young mother looks utterly spent and exhausted. Neither clothed in fine linen nor given a poised and serene posture typical in classical compositions, Mary the ordinary country girl lies prone on the cold floor, a hint of blood beneath her feet. Showing her upper body collapsed on an unidentified object that leans against the stable wall, her tired eyes tightly shut, and her wearied, drained and almost lifeless face slumped to one side, Melchers portrays a raw picture of a young mother who has just given birth to a boy under extremely primitive and impoverished conditions. Her posture tells of her total exhaustion, both emotional and physical. This is a very graphic telling of a very human story, of how exhausting it is to give birth to a baby. Behind all that, is the unspoken risks and danger to both mother and child where access to a midwife and modern medical facilities was totally non-existent. In high risks and extreme poverty, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
- Joseph too, sits there in a stooping posture, evidently exhausted by the entire experience. What is he feeling and thinking? Is he simply grateful that the mother and child have survived the ordeal unscathed? But he also seems dazed, his clasped hands suggesting he is lost as to what to do next. Pensively staring at the child, he seems to be wondering about a whole host of things. An angel of the Lord had appeared to him in a dream before and counseled him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, for the child was conceived in Mary through the work of the Holy Spirit. An angel of the Lord will appear to him twice again in dreams. But here and now, Joseph looks bothered by many things. Is he in awe? Is he bewildered by the thoughts of what the future holds for the baby and for them? Is it all too much for him? His expression suggesting concern and perturbation, Joseph looks weighed down by the realization of an overwhelming responsibility and an uncertain future.
- And the baby? Melchers does not show, as do other pictorial representations, the usual adoration by his parents, the shepherds, animals and sometimes the Three Wise Men. The latter would not arrive until a year or two later. Christians know that this Child is the King of kings and Lord of lords (Revelation 19:16), concerning whose birth those beautiful and nostalgic Christmas hymns speak of “Silent Night, Holy Night”. But here, Melchers cuts to the chase: the baby was not given the bed of kings, but was laid in a manger. The life of the Saviour of the world would be anything but a bed of roses. The reality is stark, for from before the night he was born, he was already rejected – “because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). “He came to what was his own, and his people did not accept him” (John 1:11). Yet, from start to finish, his human parents – Mary and Joseph – did not reject him, but protected and took good care of him. The child will go on to live with them in Nazareth, be obedient to them and, under their tutelage, grow to full stature “in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour” (Luke 2:51-52).
- Now the Christian viewers of this piece. We are led by Melchers to feel Mary’s exhaustion and Joseph’s bewilderment. Knowing that the Child is Baby Jesus, viewers may at first be surprised to see an “infant lowly” rather than the “Infant Holy”. Even the lantern standing right next to the Baby’s head is dark, though it is purposed to provide light. Evidently, the oil for the lamp has run dry. There is a palpable sense of oppressive darkness in the human condition awaiting liberation. In this smothering atmosphere, Melchers adds one tiny, yet all-important, detail. At once liberating, it relieves our Christian unease in seeing the Incarnation in such raw and earthly terms. Rather deftly, Melchers preserves a divine mystery dimension in portraying the Baby’s head aglow with a brilliant light. It captures brilliantly and announces softly the divine initiative in the salvation of the world. Contrasting the poverty the world has to offer this Holy Family, Melchers deftly points to the promise of God through the prophecy of Zechariah to send the Light into the world – He will “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79). Humanity needs light; where there’s light, there’s hope. The only light source that illuminates Joseph’s and Mary’s clothes in the semi-darkness of the surroundings, this light emanating from the Baby reminds viewers of who Jesus Christ is, the true light that enlightens everyone (John 1:9) and who says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Portraying the Baby as the light-source, Melchers further reminds viewers of the reality of human sojourn on earth and, in the case of Mary and Joseph, the point is particularly poignant, that while human existence is often dotted with darkness, it is also illumined by the light of Christ – “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). Oppression does not have the last word; light prevails.
What Melchers has offered us is tangible and real, tactile and raw, and believable. When we consider the love and the tenderness that underlay all this, it becomes all the more beautiful.
Melchers’ representation offers a helpful entry point for reflection on a whole range of topics in Christian spirituality. We lightly touch on three topics, amongst others.
1. Birthing the Word of God in Our Own Lives
In particular, seeing how excruciating it was for Mary and Joseph to birth the Christ Child reminds us again of how difficult it is, in reality, to bring to birth the Word of God in our own lives. This has long been foretold by the Lord himself in the Parable of the Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-32) which now applies as commonly to officers of the Church in high places as to the ordinary faithful. The acid test for the genuine birthing of a Word-centred community is not what one says in beautiful and attractive words, but whether one listens to the Word and do it. Melchers reminds Christians that when God’s power comes to birth on earth, it is not loud but muted, not flashy but humble, not strong but helpless, not typically victorious in society in the most visible and pop-culture way but shamed and mostly invisible and, above all, not found in the offices of power, title and privileges, but marginalized amongst those in the periphery for whom there is “no room in the inn”. And yet, God’s power, without a shadow of doubt, exists, prevails and endures. We find it at a deeper level of reality, at the base of things, among those who witness to the truth by loving through action of mercy and not through preaching, for just as Christ has declared, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep my word” (John 14:23). These are the “blessed” of Christ, for they “hear the word of God and observe it” (Luke 11:28).
2. Birthing an Acute Sense of Justice and a People of Good Will
A merciful God, Pope Francis resoundingly teaches, wants to see a merciful Church. The people of God, nourished by the Word, must take the lead to show mercy wherever mercy is wanting. In the story narrated by the paint brush of Melchers, that socially heartless and dismissive “no room for them in the inn” is translated into a gross social injustice to Mary and child and Joseph. In high risk and extreme poverty, this migrant family was forced to negotiate, in the most raw and base fashion, a fundamental chapter in human existence – the delivery of a new born child. This is a serious failure in decent human society. Melchers challenges us all to face our failures in rendering relief wherever such social injustices occur around us. He aims to arouse an acute sense of justice amongst people of good will.
In a decent human society, individuals must have the opportunity to receive their fair distribution of resources on the one hand, and the desire to fulfill their societal roles in contributing to the community on the other. In this regard, individuality must struggle to give way to what is socially just. What is socially just is measured by the explicit and tacit terms for the distribution of wealth, opportunities for personal activity and social privileges. In contemporary terms, social justice is fought over the breaking of barriers for social mobility, the creation of safety nets and economic justice. Melchers’ artistic imagination places a serious challenge at the gate to any decent society where the wealthy get their bodies enhanced and lives prolonged at expensive specialist medical centres, while the no-room-in-the-inn-Poor cannot even afford a basic medical health insurance coverage.
3. Birthing a Living, People’s Church
Melchers’ piece reminds us too, of how great a struggle it is to birth a living Church. After two thousand years, God has again raised up another prophet in the person of Pope Francis to do the difficult work of both announcing and birthing a new people’s Church from the dying body of the clerical church. Clericalism practised by deformed clerics and misguided laity is the curse of the Church, Pope Francis repeatedly announces, and a betrayal of the Word of God, the Light of the world. Whether the power of God, not the power of men, will have the final say on earth and in the Church, will depend on whether followers of Christ will struggle to birth the Word of God in their lives, not by beautiful yet empty words, but by truly hearing the Word of God and doing it. When we have done the latter, we can truly join Saint Paul and proclaim that:
- Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:
- He was manifested in the flesh,
- vindicated in the Spirit,
- seen by angels,
- preached among the nations,
- believed on in the world,
- taken up in glory. [1 Timothy 3:16]
A blessed Christmas to you all!
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, December 2016. All rights reserved.
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