On the birth narratives and the arts: an appendix to my WaPo essay

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, "Massacre of the Innocents" (1565-7)

Having written the essay that posted with The Washington Post a couple of weeks before it posted officially on December 24, Christmas Eve ("Biblical birth narratives are weird and incredible. We can stop sanitizing them"), I've since had a chance to chew on some of the things that were unfortunately left unsaid. 

Here are a few of them: 

First, I feel 100% compassion for preachers who preach sermons on Sundays and then again on special feast days such as Christmas Eve, which land during the middle of the week. For pastors, it is always challenging to find the time to write a good sermon, what with all the ordinary and extraordinary demands of the pastoral life; it's doubly challenging on a week like this. My comments, then, about the kinds of sermons we might find in churches during the Advent and Christmas holidays are in no way to place yet another burden on pastors nor to ignore the many, many good sermons by preachers all across the ecclesial spectrum. 

Second, while I feel less than excited that Christmas pageants are often reduced to the cutesyness of children, I will also say that I LOVE LAUGHING with parents at the silly, crazy, funny things that kids do in pageants. Kids are simply the best. 

Also: a super kudos to the staff and volunteers in our churches who pull off pageants with their sanity intact. 

Third, that being said, I still feel compelled to ask two questions: Don't we think our kids are capable of also handling substantial gospel material in a substantial way? Don't we think our kids are also capable of serious and substantial engagements with art? I would hope the answer could be yes. 

Fourth, I ask a series of "what if" questions in this essay, about the kinds of art I'd love to see our communities and artists take on. Let it also be said, that there are many, many excellent works of art by artists who are already taking the birth narratives seriously and bringing us face to face with the decidedly troubling, incredible, fantastical, weird and wonderful facets of these twin stories in Matthew and Luke. 

"Rest on The Flight into Egypt" by Orazio Gentileschi (1628)

Fifth, I mention only some of the difficult themes of the birth narratives. These are not meant to be comprehensive. They are meant instead to open up the sorts of categories that each of us feels deeply and personally, and often painfully. 

Sixth, a sincere thanks are due to my students this past term who provided the original context in which to explore these ideas. This was the task that I had given them during our class discussion, on December 2:

"Choose one medium of art and identify a specific use of that medium by which you might make a 
particular aspect of the birth narrative of Christ become fresh with insight or sharp with tension for your home congregation. Following this, suggest a way in which this experience of liturgical art forms your congregation’s sense of worship, of God, of community, of what it means to be human, and of the world at large."

I identified for my students particular aspects of the birth narratives, from both Matthew and Luke (listed below), and bolded a few noteworthy or unusual elements. I asked them to complete this exercise on their own, then share it with a partner, and finally share it with the whole group. I was so very encouraged by the art projects that my students imagined on behalf of the church at this time of year.

Lastly, let me state the obvious: It is hard to be a human being, and it is hard to be a faithful Christian. So although my essay bemoans some of the things that I find discouraging or problematic about our society, I don't wish to leave readers with a total bummer feeling about life and faith. 

If we're hanging in there, doing our best to choose to love the folks closest to us, rather than closing ourselves off to them, to cling to hope rather than give in to despair, or to receive the gift of Jesus' joy (as my good wife rightly puts it) rather than to let ourselves devolve to the worst version of ourselves in light of the pain and sadness that at times feels impossible, well, then, I figure we're doing something right and we have an occasion to join in the feast of the Incarnation, with clear eyes and full hearts, along with others who can bear our burdens with us, even as Jesus himself continues to bear us all, at all times and in all places. 

(A warm thanks to Sarah Pulliam Bailey, and to Bruce Herman, David J. P. Hooker, Jim Janknegt, and Phaedra Taylor for letting me use their beautiful artwork in the WaPo essay.)

"Guatemalan Annunciation" by Fr. John B. Giuliani

Making Fresh the Strange Narrative of Christ’s birth: Matthew 

1. A child is conceived out of wedlock: 1:18
2. Joseph’s intention is to divorce Mary quietly: 1:19.
3. An angel communicates with Joseph through a dream (not a vision or in person, as with Mary and Zechariah): 1:20.
4. Jesus is given his name: 1:21.
5. Fulfillment of centuries-old prophecies: 1:22-23.
6. Social stigma/shame in Joseph taking Mary to be his wife while she was pregnant: 1:24.
7. A miraculous conception: 1:25.
8. Astrologers qua astronomers see a “star/comet” and decide to visit Bethlehem in order to visit the child kind: 2:1.
9. The “magi” worship the child Jesus with bizarre gifts: 2:11.
10. An angel warns the “magi” in a dream to not return to Herod: 2:12.
11. An angel appears again to Joseph in a dream to warn him: 2:13.
12. A refugee family moves away from family at the most inopportune time of the child’s life in order to live amongst strangers in Egypt: 2:14-15.
13. The massacre/genocide of children, as a fulfillment of God’s prophetic word: 2:16-18.
14. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream, for the third time, to tell him to return to Israel: 3:19.
15. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream, for the fourth time, to tell him to go to Nazareth in Galilee specifically: 2:22-23.

"The Flight into Egypt" by Joachim Beuckelaer (second half of 16th century)

Making Fresh the Strange Narrative of Christ’s birth: Luke 

1. Infertility: occurring to the two people you’d least expect would be infertile, on account of the fact that they are descried as “upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly; cf. Deut. 28:4, 18; John 9:2-3).
2. Elizabeth’s shame or disgrace caused by her infertility: 1:24-25.
3. The elderly: and their socio-religious status in Israel: Zechariah and Elizabeth, Anna and Simeon: 1:7; 2:25-36.
4. The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah in person: 1:11.
5. A child is conceived in at an impossibly old age: 1:23
6. John is given his name by the angel, a name that did not have any connection to any family member: 1:13, 60-63.
7. John is tagged with a Nazarite’s vow before his birth in preparation for his calling as the latter-day Elijah: 1:15.
8. Doubt in Zechariah’s interrogation of the angel: 1:18.
9. Judgment: in Gabriel’s word to Zechariah: 1:20.
10. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary in person: 1:26-27.
11. Jesus is given his name by the angel: 1:31.
12. Mary is not judged by the angel for asking virtually the same question that Zechariah asks: 1:34.
13. The Holy Spirit impregnates Mary with a divine zygote: 1:35.
14. The fetus leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when she encounters Mary: 1:41.
15. Mary bursts out into spontaneous song: 1:46ff. The song is not a “sweet” song.
16. Zechariah bursts out into spontaneous song: 1:67ff. It, too, is not a “sweet” song.
17. John lived in the desert during his childhood, presumably because his parents had died when he was young: 1:80.
18. Jesus is born in a cave or in an overcrowded Palestinian peasant home, in the part that included the stable for animals: 2:7.
19. The shepherds, as perhaps the garbage truck workers or funeral undertakers or homeless of first century Palestine, were the first to receive the news of Jesus’ birth: 2:8.
20. An angel appears to the shepherds: 2:9.
21. Simeon utters a prophetic word: 2:29ff.
22. Simeon offers a decidedly “indelicate” comment to the young mother Mary: 2:35.
23. Anna is a prophetess: 2:36.
24. Anna is a widow: 2:37.

"The Nativity" by Gary Melchers (1891)

Nicholas Mynheer, "Saint Nicholas and Saint Edward" (2011)

Steve Prince, "Familia"

"Joseph's Dream" by Fr. John B. Giuliani


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