It will soon be Advent, the most beautiful of church seasons, celebrated over the four Sundays preceding Christmas. You might not be part of a liturgical church tradition, but marking each Sunday with a reading and the lighting of a candle can be a rich way to prepare yourself, your family, your congregation for the true meaning of Christmas amidst all the tinsel and commercialism of the season.
You might like to use these four paintings, each from different eras, as stimulus for thinking about the well-known story. Here’s how you might do it:
- Light the candle (you’ll need three purple and one rose candle, and a white one for Christmas).
- Read the Bible text.
- Take time to examine the picture.
- Read the reflection below each picture.
This could be done in your Sunday service, or around the family meal table, or as a personal devotional practice.
I hope this small resource helps to focus your heart and soul on the true things of Christmas – hope, faith, joy and peace – and forms a brief respite from shopping mall Santas and Jingle Bells and gluttony and avarice.
Oh, and merry Christmas.
WEEK 1 — HOPE
Light the Prophets’ Candle (purple), symbolizing hope
Reading: Luke 1:26–38
Artwork: The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)
In Henry Ossawa Tanner’s depiction of the annunciation, Mary sits compliantly on her bed, her fingers interlaced, her head slightly bowed. She looks apprehensive. The bed clothes have spilled onto the floor. A blazing light emanates from the other side of the room.
But the detail that jumps out to me is the wrinkling of the carpet.
What caused it to bunch up in the middle like that? Did it happen when Mary recoiled in fear at the apparition? Did she spin on her bare feet and throw herself on her bed? Matthew tells us Mary was “greatly troubled at his words,” as you can well imagine. And so the angel Gabriel must console her before commissioning her for an extraordinary task.
But there’s no indication of Mary’s terror in this painting, only the physical effect of it left in the disturbed rug. She appears to have composed herself. Tanner has captured Mary’s quizzical expression at the very moment she asks Gabriel, “How will this be?”
She looks sceptical, uncertain, confused.
She looks so… young.
The first Sunday in Advent is a time to declare hope. But this is fragile hope. A young woman – barely a woman – sits acquiescently on her messy bed, listening to an angel’s crazy message. An insane message. An impossible message. An unbelievable message.
Indeed who would believe what Gabriel says here? That an unmarried teenager will give birth to the hope of the nations? That a nervous virgin will conceive a king, a ruler over all of Jacob’s descendants?
By depicting Mary at this very moment, Tanner seems to prolong the moment between the angel’s announcement and Mary’s astonishing response. He invites us into a kind of pregnant pause (pun intended), a moment in which all the angels in heaven, and all the very stuff of creation, take a deep breath and wait.
We wait too.
And then she speaks, in her faltering young voice.
“I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”
Phew. Outtake of breath. Hope. Sweet hope.
WEEK 2 — FAITH
Light the Bethlehem Candle (purple), symbolizing faith
Reading: Luke 1:46-55
Artwork: The Nativity by Gari Melchers (1860-1932)
This is a most unusual depiction of the holy family.
No angels or shepherds.
No wise men or donkeys or camels or sheep. No snow-covered gables or partridges or pear trees.
Only an exhausted new mother and her pensive husband. And of course her extraordinary newborn child.
Melchers chose to paint the trio alone in a darkened room, either before the shepherds appeared or after they’d left. The tone is sombre, the colour palette monochrome. A faint light comes in from the open door, but Joseph and Mary are mainly lit by the glow of the Christ-child. There is a sense of respite, a calm before the impending storm – the arrival of the strange men from the east, and Herod’s vicious slaughter of the innocents.
As she lay there – spent, depleted – did Mary reflect on her earlier words to Elizabeth, her joyous song of faith and fire?
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…”
Mary’s song, or the Magnificat (from the Latin translation of the first line of the song, Magnificat anima mea Dominum) is a breathtaking expression of both worship and revolution. My friend Christiana Rice says she often thinks of it like a spoken word performance – Mary spitting words with passion and ferocity.
In her song, Mary not only magnifies the Lord, she imagines a world in which the rich and powerful are usurped, and the humble and hungry are lifted up and fed.
Months before the moment depicted in this painting, Mary believed the child to whom she would give birth would be the fulfillment of all of Israel’s hopes for liberty and justice, peace and goodwill. And she yearned for such a world.
Now, she can barely lift her head to look upon her child. She appears hungry, humble, bone-tired.
It takes faith to believe that Christ will triumph over sin and death, injustice and poverty. It takes faith to believe in the prophetic vision of Mary’s song. Even Mary, it seems, in this shadowy moment of rest, is forced to muster all the faith she can find to believe it.
Let this prone, bare-footed figure inspire you. Like her, even when all the evidence appears to be to the contrary, still will we believe.
WEEK 3 — JOY
Light the Shepherds’ Candle (rose), symbolizing joy
Reading: Luke 2:8-12
Artwork: Seeing Shepherds by Daniel Bonnell (current)
I’m pretty sure Daniel Bonnell wants your eye to be drawn to the astonishing sweep of the angelic host, but I love looking at those two shepherds.
Their arms are outstretched, their heads have lolled back, they are lost in exultation and joy.
To be sure, the appearance of a sky-full of celestial beings would have been terrifying. And the first thing the angel has to say is, “Do not be afraid.”
But shepherds were tough guys. They slept rough, needing to stay beside their flocks on the hills well outside human society. They had to contend with thieves and wolves, wind and cold and baking heat. They were wild men, hardened, practical, not easily ruffled.
As a result, they were not usually trusted by the general population. In fact, their reputations as raconteurs and charlatans meant their testimony was often considered inadmissible in a court of law. How strange that God should choose so unworthy an audience to announce the birth of the Messiah.
But having allayed their fears, the angel continues, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”
Wily shepherds, ready for anything, have never seen anything like this. Who would believe that they should receive so wonderful a message, so lavishly presented! Great joy? Of course, a message of great joy would be received gleefully by outliers like shepherds. They have nothing, they are outcasts, despised and rejected by society. When they hear, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord,” they know they too are included in his kingdom.
On this, the third Sunday in Advent, we light a rose-colored candle rather than the usual purple one. The intention is to depict the delight, the sheer wonder of this moment.
Look again at those blissed out shepherds in Bonnell’s painting.
Can you sense their joy?
Can we fully appreciate the excitement experienced by the excluded when a genuine offer of inclusion is presented to them?
WEEK 4 — PEACE
Light the Angel’s Candle (purple), symbolizing peace
Reading: Luke 2:13-15
Artwork: Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ to the Shepherds by Govert Flinck (1615-1660)
In the previous painting your eye is drawn to the angels, but I asked you to focus on the shepherds. In this painting by Govert Flinck, I’ll ask you to do the reverse.
Flinck intends your eye to be drawn downward to the richly observed shepherds. But lift your eye to the angels. What a delightful assortment of spiritual messengers he has assembled. It might not surprise you to know that Flinck was an apprentice to Rembrandt, so his depiction of the angels is reminiscent of the way his master painted them.
Chubby cherubs are raining down from heaven, gambolling and turning uncontrollably in the sky. Two angels, one in white, the other clothed in black, recline on clouds, surveying the scene around them. A third angel, golden-haired and elaborately robed, stands before the shepherds, announcing the birth of the Christ child, a finger gesturing toward Bethlehem.
This messenger is mobbed by cherubs. They loll on the clouds around the angel, two appearing comically from beneath it’s long white robe.
By presenting the messengers as playful, tumbling cherubs, Flinck says something about the collision of two worlds that occurs on Christmas morning.
The world of the shepherds is dark, brown-hued, and shrouded by undergrowth and tangled trees. The sheep, goats and cattle they attend are a jumbled mess, oblivious to the spectacle above them. Only the shepherds’ dog looks quizzically to the sky. There is confusion. Some shepherds are terrified, some hide indoors, one is sound asleep, one cradles a child from danger.
But the world of the heavenly host is filled with light. It is tranquil and exuberant. Their message is, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
On this very morning, the light of heaven began to bleed into the darkness of this world.
Peace – true peace – the much anticipated shalom that Israel had yearned for, had come at last.
In the turmoil of our current world, we are like the addled and confused shepherds cowering in the darkness. May we hear the angels’ message, may we smile again at those cavorting cherubs, and yearn for the peace that comes only through Christ.