How do we respond to God and to our community in this season of Advent and Christmas? How do we receive the reality of God humbling Godself to be made “in human likeness”?
Art helps me to meditate on the mysteries of the Incarnation, of God self-emptying to be born in Jesus Christ. This year the artwork from The Saint John’s Bible has been central in my devotions, and the frontispiece to Saint Luke’s Gospel has served as my focal point. A lithographic print of this page of the Bible hangs in the hallway of the parish; you might have passed it on your way to coffee hour and adult formation. Take a moment to notice the image—the way the sunlight catches the gold in the print. What might God be saying to you in this image?
My eye is drawn to a brilliant shaft of light, of gold leaf, that bifurcates the painting and then draws my gaze to the manger. Faces surround the manger: an older man with a beard, perhaps a shepherd, a young man with a child, a boy, and a woman draped in blue, whom I presume to be Mary. They all look into the light. There is no cute baby in this painting. There is no baby at all. And the golden light that emanates from the manger illumines the faces of those who look upon it. Turning our faces toward the light of Christ means that we are changed, that we can reflect back that divine light to others.
Words invoking light also illumine the page: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,” and “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” The words of the angels to the shepherds in the field also illuminate the page: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Luke 2:14). The words are familiar—too familiar. They no longer convey for me the cosmic significance of the Incarnation. But the image does.
In the foreground there is not a dairy cow, but the distinctive, black outline of a bull, nearly identical to those found in the cave paintings in Lascaux, France, from 18,000 BCE. It looks to me that the bull is bowing to the manger. In a radical way, the birth of Christ changes the cosmic order, bending linear time back on itself. On either side of the divine golden column of light what I imagine are angels flank the column, forming a cross. The work of Christ on the cross is prefigured even at his birth. Dozens of shooting stars, or maybe comets, fill the background as if the cosmos is rejoicing, celebrating the birth of Jesus.
The frontispiece of Luke’s Gospel, this image of Christ’s birth, suggests that we do not encounter the divine in isolation, but rather that we know and are transformed by Christ in communion with both our natural, physical world, and our human family.
This season, take a moment to pause and explore how The Saint John’s Bible images can inspire new questions, new exploration, and new discoveries for you.
Image: Birth of Christ, Donald Jackson, Copyright 2002, The Saint John’s Bible, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This article originally appeared on the St. John’s Cathedral, Denver website http://sjcathedral.org/Illumination. Thanks to the cathedral and Mother Elizabeth Marie Melchionna for permission to reprint here.