Advent Reflection 6: Don’t be afraid of the light

Advent Reflection 6: Don’t be afraid of the light

From Bruegel and Botticelli to Fra Angelico and Giorgione, I’m writing a series of devotions based on the greatest Christmas art of all time. Each devotion includes a picture, a Bible reading, a reflection and a prayer. Take your time. Look deeply. Breathe. Relax. Be with God. 6 ANNUNCIATION TO THE SHEPHERDS   Artwork:  Annunciation to the Shepherds – Taddeo Gaddi, Church of Santa Croce, Florence Reading:  Luke 2:8-15 Reflection: It’s the light that gets me. Look again at this picture, at the way the figures are lit. It’s quite remarkable really. It’s still evening. We can see that from the sliver of night sky beyond the brow of the hill. But the hill itself and the figures on it are bleached by a piercing light that bathes the sleepy shepherds and their flock. It’s as if the whole scene is being washed clean in light. Pure light. How extraordinary that this effect is created by paint and a brush. The artist Taddeo Gaddi is hardly known at all these days. In fact, most bios only discuss him with reference to his much more famous teacher, the grand master, Giotto. He’s usually referred to as “the pupil of…” or “a follower of…” One entry describes him as, “A capable artist, although lacking his teacher’s comprehensive aesthetic vision.” Ouch. But he

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Advent Reflection 5: That radiant place between worship and intimacy

Advent Reflection 5: That radiant place between worship and intimacy

This Advent, I’m writing a series of devotions, based on ten of the most beautiful paintings of the Christmas story ever created. Take some time to look carefully at the painting above. Read the Bible text. Read the reflection. Recite the prayer. 5.  THE BIRTH OF CHRIST   Artwork:  The Nativity – Federico Barocci, Prado museum, Madrid Reading: Luke 2:6-7 Reflection: You’ve looked at a thousand nativity scenes in your life, right? They range from the sickly, sentimental kind seen on greeting cards through to the melodramatic iconography of Catholic religious art. But not many are as intimate or as tender as Federico Barocci’s depiction of Mary and her newborn infant. She kneels, her hands outstretched and open, as if in the posture of worship. But at the same time her face shines like a young mother full to overflowing with love for her child. She adores her boy. And the child gazes back. In the otherwise darkened room, light plays across both their faces. The radiant child illuminates the exquisitely loving face of Mary, the whole composition emphasizing their mutual bond. Barocci was a sensitive soul. Deeply religious, often unwell, emotional but quite playful. As an expression of his eccentricity, in many of his religious paintings he included cats. Yep, cats. Here are two of his paintings of the

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Advent Reflection 4: Christ the Overlooked

Advent Reflection 4: Christ the Overlooked

Look carefully at the painting. It’s one of history’s truly great pieces of Christmas-related art. Then read the Bible passage that inspired it. Then read my devotional reflection. Finally, there’s a prayer you can recite at the end. 4.  ARRIVAL IN BETHLEHEM   Artwork:  The Census at Bethlehem – Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels Reading: Luke 2:1-4 Reflection: Pieter Bruegel the Elder loved to paint peasants. Although a relatively well-off artist, he was known to dress in peasant clothing and surreptitiously mingle among the poor at their weddings and other social events in order to more accurately depict their day to day lives. For this he received the nickname “Bruegel the Peasant”. His pictures of the rituals of village life in his native Belgium are earthy and unsentimental. But he painted the ordinariness of peasant culture – including farming scenes, hunts, feasts and festivals, dances and games – in vivid and touching detail. He seemed to love them. Typically, then, for his depiction of Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem, he contemporizes the scene and sets it in a frozen Belgian streetscape. Mary and Joseph are just two more poor peasants trudging through the freezing air to line up for the ruthlessly imposed census. Finding them in this picture isn’t easy. They are

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Advent Reflection 3: The Sacrament of Being Helpful

Advent Reflection 3: The Sacrament of Being Helpful

Look carefully at the painting. It’s one of history’s truly great pieces of Christmas-related art. Then read the Bible passage that inspired it. Then read my devotional reflection. Finally, there’s a prayer you can recite at the end. 3.  THE JOURNEY TO BETHLEHEM   Artwork:  Mary and Joseph on the Way to Bethlehem (Portinari Altarpiece) – Hugo van der Goes, Uffizi Gallery, Florence Reading: Luke 2:1-5 Reflection: On the road to Bethlehem, Joseph gently assists the pregnant Mary down a steep incline. She has left the donkey, presumably because it would be too perilous to ride down such a slope. Often portrayed in the background or ineffectually to one side, Joseph is presented to us here as a gallant and caring partner to Mary. One hand on her arm. The other guiding her from behind. He’s being a typically helpful partner. Hugo van der Goes’ depiction of their journey appears in the background of a much larger three-paneled work (that dome in the bottom left corner is the bald head of St Anthony, depicted in the foreground). The full Portinari Altarpiece is an extravagant depiction of the nativity, including the adoration of the angels and the shepherds, the visit of the Magi, various patron saints (including the aforementioned bald Anthony), and even a portrait of Van der Goes’ patron and his family. That’s

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Advent Reflection 2: Don’t screw this up, God

Advent Reflection 2: Don’t screw this up, God

This Advent, I’m writing a series of devotions, based on ten of the most gorgeous paintings of the Christmas story ever created. From Bruegel and Botticelli to Fra Angelico and Giorgione. Look carefully at the painting. Read the Bible text. Read the reflection. Recite the prayer. Breathe.   2  THE ANGEL APPEARS TO JOSEPH   Artwork:  The Dream of St Joseph – Philippe de Champaigne, National Gallery, London Reading:  Matthew 1:18-25 Reflection: The French Baroque painter Champaigne is one of very few artists to bother depicting Joseph’s story, but he does so in an unlikely way. He manages to make a painting of Joseph be almost entirely about Mary. Note the way the arrangement of the sleeping Joseph and his angelic visitor create a sideways V shape that actually accentuates Mary’s presence between them. Note also the angel’s sign language. One finger pointed to heaven. The other to Mary. As if indicating the supernatural link between them. As if to say, “She belongs to God now.” And note Mary’s posture. She waits. Her arms are folded across her chest, like she’s holding herself together. And she’s focused on the angel. It’s as if she can see right into Joseph’s dreams. She knows that everything hinges on the angel getting this right. Should Joseph reject her, forcing her back to her father’s home

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Advent Reflection 1: Like a kick in the guts

Advent Reflection 1: Like a kick in the guts

I will be posting two Advent reflections each week this season. They will each be based on one of the 10 greatest paintings of the Christmas story ever produced.  I trust you find them life-giving and hope-enlarging. Look carefully at the painting above. Examine every section. Explore the artist’s design. What do you see? Now read the Bible text. Then read my reflection below. Each reflection will end with a beautiful prayer for you to recite.   1 THE ANNUNCIATION   Artwork: The Annunciation – Fra Angelico, Convent of San Marco, Florence Reading: Luke 1:26-38 Reflection: Look at Mary. Look closely at her. She looks exquisite. Her hands folded across her belly. Her figure slightly bent. Her face passive and staring. She looks like she’s in shock, as if she’s just been hit by something in the very center of her being. Like she’s been kicked in the guts. The painter, Fra Angelico, a Florentine monk, depicts Mary as if she has conceived her child at the exact moment the angel’s word is spoken. Just as the world was created by God’s spoken word in Genesis, so the Incarnation is initiated by the angel’s word. The word gives life. The virgin is with child. The Christ is coming. And Mary receives it all exactly the way we should all receive this revelation:

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This old man is showing me how to face death

This old man is showing me how to face death

I’m no music critic, which will be immediately apparent as you read this meditation on Leonard Cohen’s new album. I’m a longtime fan. And I strive, with varying degrees of success, to be a spiritual man. I admit that being both those things makes me biased when it comes to this exquisite new album. Leonard Cohen is 82 years old. Not long for this world, you might conclude. So to hear him sing “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready, my Lord” really pulls at the heartstrings. (Hineni is Hebrew for “Here I am.” But in a spiritual sense. As in the way Abraham says it when God calls his name in Genesis 22:1). The title song of his new album, You Want it Darker, features the choir of the same Montreal synagogue where Cohen’s father and grandfather both served in high positions. There’s also a gorgeous vocal solo by the synagogue’s cantor, Gideon Zelermyer. It’s like in his eighties the grand old master is returning to his beginnings. Remember, this is the man who withdrew from music in the 1990s after a breakdown to devote himself to Zen monastic studies on California’s Mount Baldy. Although Cohen didn’t see this as a challenge to Jewish belief. The tradition of Zen he practiced didn’t include prayerful worship and made no affirmation of a deity. But

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Halloween is a window into our collective soul

Halloween is a window into our collective soul

There’s a reason we dress up the way we do at Halloween, you know. And it’s not just dumb, stupid fun. Your Halloween costume says something important about the world you live in. This year, Americans will spend a cool $8 billion on Halloween celebrations, including $1.2 billion on their kids’ costumes and another $1.5 billion on their own Halloween outfits. That’s a whole lot of witches, vampires, superheroes, and naughty nurses costumes. So why do we do it? Well, Anthropologists have an expression for events like Halloween, particularly the kind that require costumes. They call them “inversion rituals”. An inversion ritual is an event or ceremony where people are given permission to violate normal social behaviors, to turn convention on its head, to reverse standard practice.  And dressing up allows us to mock the values we’re violating while preserving some level of anonymity. Basically, an inversion ritual is a sanctioned way to hold a mirror image up to normal social standards. In societies where hard work, thrift and modesty are the order of the day, you’ll find raucous inversion rituals like Mardi Gras or St Patricks Day. In societies where life is precarious and death is barely kept at bay, there’ll be a festival like the Day of the Dead. Where societies are very sexually repressive you’ll see masquerade

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Clickbait and switch

Clickbait and switch

“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”   Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that more than half a century ago, when he could have had no idea how right he would become. Imagine Dr King’s frustration with the quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions if he was alive today. The Internet generally, and social media more specifically, has completely reduced our attention spans, and our capacity to engage in the hard, solid thinking he was commending. In a recent media lecture, journalist Waleed Aly admitted the two primary motivators for the creation of online news content is (a) speed and (b) shareability, and that both of these things are destroying the quality of contemporary journalism. That makes sense. These days journalists have to produce stories at warp speed to keep up with our voracious desire for the ‘latest’ news. As Aly admits, this means journalists aren’t interested in a story that could take weeks or even days to research and write. It means our newsfeeds are full of pretty much the same content regurgitated by every news outlet and every journalist. In other words, it’s the mindless repetition of received and already accepted

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