December 24, 2014


Christmas Eve Talk
M. Rebecca

            This is my 3rd chapter talk for Christmas and each time I have used visual art to try to bring out a deeper expression and impression of this mystery of Jesus’ birth.  Guerric of Igny said in one of his Christmas sermons: “Our senses are incapable of seeing the invisible, inapt to comprehend the celestial…and although faith comes from hearing, it comes more prompt and ready from seeing…We not only hear the Word of God preached {today} but we see the Word of God given to us this day.”  Art can communicate in places words cannot go.  So I repeat today Guerric’s own invitation to his monks over 900 years ago, “Come let us make our way to Bethlehem and see this happening which God has made known to us”!!
            This year I would like to use a painting that I saw at the National Gallery in London.  It is called “The Nativity at Night” and was painted around 1490 by a Flemish painter, Geertgen. He was inspired by the mystical vision of St Bridget of Sweden (also from the 15th century).  In one of her visions, St Bridget wrote, “The light of the new-born child was so bright that the sun was not comparable to it”.   This is what Geertgen said he tried to capture - which is interesting for such a dark painting! 
            Yet what first grabbed my attention was his use of light.  The divine light from Jesus is the center or focal point – it is not a reflected light but comes from within.  When I saw this painting, our Lauds antiphon came to my mind:  “He is the source of light and in His Light we see light”.  Those who catch this light are in joy, awe, or adoration…even the animals.  The donkey is a bit shy and kind of nudges his way behind Mary.   But the ox pushed his way right into the middle of the painting with eyes wide open in amazement at seeing the Child Jesus.  All the little angels have their hands clasped in prayer except one who is so overcome with joy she is beside herself!  She reminds us that one cannot be ‘in the Light w/o delight’! 
            But in the background we have another scene going on.   There are shepherds in the field surrounded by a puny little campfire, while an angel shining in the darkness of a starless night illuminates the minds and hearts of the onlookers.  The angel is directly above Jesus in the crib and I wonder if that was on purpose to show Jesus was the source also of the angel’s light.  The human campfire is almost unnoticeable in comparison with the divine rays.   All the light we can generate in this world is puny compared to Christ…or as St Bridget said, not even the sun is comparable to it!
            A basic scientific understanding of light tells us that light is invisible until it hits something.  Light is wavelengths and so only after it touches an object can it reflect light, color, and beauty.  Otherwise, it remains an invisible, unnoticed reality.   This can teach us something about Geertgen’s painting but also about Christmas:  We must sit with the Light and allow it to touch us.  We must absorb and reflect the Light…in order for Christmas to become a visible reality. 
            It is thought that originally this painting was done as an altarpiece.  Imagine the symbolism of the priest raising the consecrated Host at the altar and having the Infant Jesus juxtaposed lying in a manger.  How fitting for this baby, humble and naked, to be situated at the altar.  Jesus at the end of his life will again be humbled and naked, not in a hidden manager but high on a cross for the entire world to see.  But these are not just past events.  Jesus continues to be humble and vulnerable as He gives Himself to us daily in the Eucharist.   The Eucharist is the greatest expression of the love of God incarnate!  The tie b/w Christmas and the Eucharist is inseparable…the Eucharist keeps Christmas happening every day!  So how fitting that we have in our own sanctuary the cross hanging over the crèche with the altar in between!  The cross and crèche join together at the altar, in the Eucharist.   
            Guerric of Igny hinted at this connection when he told his brothers “you too will find the Infant today wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in the manger of the altar.”   He continued, “The more completely His majesty humbled and emptied Himself, the more easily and fully did charity divest itself of self-love and the love of God possessed them”.   Just as our Lord was disguised by being wrapped in swaddling clothes, so today we have this same sacred Body wrapped in the humble white host on our altar. 
            Yet again, we must have Light to see Light.  We must be near Christ to reflect His Light and be illuminated by this mystery.  So let us take Guerric’s instructions to his own monks:  Let us become more completely humble and empty so that charity may more easily divest us of self-love and let the love of God possess us.   This is Christmas.  This is how we give birth to Christ.  This is divine Light absorbed and reflected.  And this is what I think Geertgen’s painting is calling us to:  to be like that angel with open hands unable to contain herself or her joy…to be like the awe-struck ox caught in amazement…to be like the shy, reverent donkey in adoration.   So we must sit often in the silence of the Divine Child born on the altar in the Blessed Sacrament.  For when we receive the Eucharist, and when we become Eucharist for others, we make “Christ born to us” anew!  It is there we learn to receive and reflect His Light and then Christmas becomes a noticeable, visible reality every day. 
            So I will end with one final word from Guerric, “If we do not turn away our faces from considering Him who lies in the manager, we can be fed most happily by seeing and gazing on Him…and considering Him who lies on the altar, we can be fed most happily by tasting and savoring Him.”  So let us cast our sight on the Light…and let us savor our Savior!
When we do this it will truly be Christmas!  For Christ is born to us TODAY!
                        Christmas 2014      

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