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
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 almost indistinguishable from the rest of the crowd, if not for their ubiquitous nativity donkey.
And here’s the point I think Bruegel is making. The King of the world has arrived in Bethlehem, but he is overlooked, identical to all the other peasants in this fallen world, unremarkable, unknown, unseen.
Remember the prophecy of Isaiah, written around 700 years before the birth of Christ:
“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by humankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.” (Isa 53:2-3)
Later, he will be adored by angels, but for now he slips unnoticed into Bethlehem, reminding us that God is for all. For the peasant, the overlooked, the unremembered, the unimportant.
For you. And for me.
O Mystery as grand as the universe
O Mighty Force of all creation,
O Power beyond all our power,
You have come to us as an infant.
Vulnerable, fragile, beautiful.
You have come to us
in the midst of poverty,
powerlessness and longing.
Come again, O Promiser of Peace.
Be born again in the camps.
Be born again in stables and homes.
Be born again in many cities and languages.
Be born again among nations.
Be born again in places of injustice.
Be born again a promise of hope,
a sign of love and joy to the world.
Be born again in our hearts,
that we too might be called
Makers of peace
and Children of God.
By David Giuliano