We find our fathers where we can

We find our fathers where we can

The man’s name is Juan. He finds the boy hiding in an abandoned apartment and takes him home and feeds him. The boy won’t speak. He doesn’t speak because no one ever listens to him. Not the other boys who bully him and call him “faggot”. Not his crack-addicted mother. But Juan listens. Or tries to. He and his partner Teresa set a place for him at their table. And make up a bed for him. They let him sleep peacefully and in the morning when he tells them his name is Chiron and where he lives Juan returns him to the toxic home from which he comes. Later, Juan takes the boy down to the beach and coaxes him into the water. He shows him how to float and the basics of how to swim. He cradles him in the water holding him like a baby, or like a baptism. It’s the beginning of a touching friendship, depicted in the opening chapter of Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight, a powerful film about growing up poor, black and queer in America. But we know that Juan, played by Mahershala Ali, isn’t just a kindly neighbor. We know he’s a crack dealer. We know this because we’ve seen him plying his trade earlier in the film. And at first we think that Juan’s interest

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We’re cheering for Rogue One but we’re really on the Empire’s side

We’re cheering for Rogue One but we’re really on the Empire’s side

As you probably know by now, Rogue One is about a small band of rebels, part of the larger Rebel Alliance, who try to steal the design plans for a super-weapon called the Death Star. Even if you’re not that into Star Wars films (which I’m not) you’d enjoy it. It’s basically a heist movie – a ragtag bunch of compatriots, each possessing different but complementary skills, attempt to rip off an evil guy’s stuff. It’s like Oceans 11 in space. The movie’s tagline is “A rebellion built on hope.” And there’s lots of talk of hope. Because we all know that what the Rogue One crew is doing won’t defeat their enemy but will offer hope for the future for the Rebel Alliance (see Star Wars Episode IV for how all that turns out). But the Empire is all-pervasive. It has conquered the galaxy and seems invincible. The Rebel leadership is ready to capitulate. There’s simply no way to stop it. Until Jyn Erso and her plucky crew take matters into their own hands. And everyone cheers them on. After all, we hate Darth Vader and Moff Tarkin, right? But what if I told you that most of those in the cinema, munching blithely on their popcorn, were really on the side of the Empire without knowing it?   We watch films

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Advent Reflection 10: Yes, Jesus WAS a refugee

Advent Reflection 10: Yes, Jesus WAS a refugee

The final entry in my series of reflections based on ten of the greatest Christmas artworks of all time. Merry Christmas to you all! 10 THE FLIGHT TO EGYPT   Artwork: Rest on the Flight to Egypt – Orazio Gentileschi, Birmingham Art Gallery Reading: Matthew 2:13-23 Reflection: This isn’t a very well known Christmas painting, but I really like it. During their escape from the murderous King Herod, the holy family rests in what looks like a derelict building. Their donkey waits on the other side of a broken wall as Joseph takes a nap and Mary feeds her child. There are dark, foreboding clouds on the horizon. The setting reinforces the appalling situation they find themselves in. Destitute, alone, and taking brief shelter in a ruin. Orazio Gentileschi’s picture is a strange composition. But it beautifully portrays the utter exhaustion of the holy family’s hurried escape from Bethlehem. They look like a modern day refugee family fleeing Aleppo. Joseph has collapsed in sheer exhaustion. Mary’s feet are dirty and she appears too tired to even cradle her hungry child, who looks furtively in our direction. Gentileschi obviously related to the refugee status of the holy family. He painted five versions of this picture. As a young painter he had become caught up in the licentious and violent world of fellow

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Advent Reflection 9: How deep is your love?

Advent Reflection 9: How deep is your love?

Ten of the greatest pieces of Christian art ever created. Ten Advent reflections. A bit like the ten stations of the Christmas story. Here’s No.9. 9.  THE ADORATION OF THE MAGI   Artwork:  Adoration of the Magi – Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence Reading:  Matthew 2:7-12 Reflection: Botticelli was commissioned to paint this astonishing work in 1475 by Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama, a wealthy Italian banker connected to the Medici family. The holy family are positioned aloft in a derelict outhouse of yawning rafters on the brink of collapse. Below them, the Magi and their attendants have come bearing gifts for the Christ child. It’s a lush, dramatic, altogether beautiful nativity. That much is obvious to the uninformed viewer. What you might not know is the sly and artful way Botticelli has portrayed the images in the foreground. The three Magi are portrayed by patriarchs of the powerful Medici family. The magus kneeling before Christ and pompously touching his feet is Cosimo de’ Medici, the first of the Medici political dynasty. The second magus in the center with the red mantle is Cosimo’s son, Piero, who succeeded him as lord of Florence. And the third magus beside him is Piero’s brother Giovanni. They seem to be in conversation, perhaps disagreement. It was well known that Cosimo had intended for Giovanni to

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Advent Reflection 8: Where is Jesus?

Advent Reflection 8: Where is Jesus?

My Advent devotion series, based on the 10 greatest paintings of the Christmas story ever produced. Look carefully at the painting. Read the Bible text. Read the reflection. Recite the prayer. 8. THE MAGI SEARCH FOR THE CHRIST   Artwork: The Procession of the Magi – Benozzo Gozzoli, Medici Riccardi palace, Florence Reading: Matthew 2:1-10  Reflection: The Medicis were an Italian banking family that came to exercise such supreme control over the affairs of Tuscany and Florence that they became first a political dynasty and later a royal house. Wealthy and powerful beyond all reckoning, they transformed Florence into a stunningly beautiful and excessively luxurious city of the finest architecture and art. Medici money seemed to be inexhaustible. One Medici or another was patron to Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, Rubens, and even Galileo. Four Medicis became Pope, a host of others cardinal, and two went on to rule France. So, when in 1459 Piero de’ Medici commissioned Benozzo Gozzoli to paint a series of frescoes of the procession of the Magi, Gozzoli knew exactly which side his bread was buttered on. His painting is a monumental exercise in sucking up! Instead of depicting just three wise men riding camels in the desert, he painted 33 kings parading in a cavalcade of excess and grandeur, every one of them a

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Advent Reflection 7: Outliers no longer

Advent Reflection 7: Outliers no longer

This is the seventh in a series of ten reflections looking at the Christmas story through the eyes of some of the greatest artists in history. 7.  THE ADORATION OF THE SHEPHERDS   Artwork: The Adoration of the Shepherds – Giorgione, National Gallery of Art, Washington Reading: Luke 2:15-20  Reflection: This is such a daring way to compose a nativity scene. Nearly every other Renaissance painter places the Holy Family smack-dab in the center of their composition. Lesser characters like shepherds, wise men, angels, sheep and other figures get arranged around them. Not Giorgione. He places the shepherds right in the middle of his frame. Dressed in worn and ragged clothes, the shepherds kneel like contrite pilgrims, bare-headed before the Christ child. To their left our eye is drawn off down a winding road through the town and out to the mountains in the distance. These men don’t belong here among the civilized folk. They are fringe-dwellers, outliers, wild men from the hills beyond normal society.  In 1st Century Israel, shepherds were despised. They were considered second-class citizens and untrustworthy. They were not permitted to fulfill judicial offices nor be admitted in court as witnesses. Joachim Jeremias says of shepherds at the time, “Most of the time they were dishonest and thieving; they led their herds onto other people’s land and

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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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