A Christmas Eve Meditation
By Cameron J. Anderson
Having completed the 90-mile trip from Nazareth, Joseph and Mary’s approach to Bethlehem must have been stress-filled: Mary was due, at any moment, to give birth to her first child. Of the four Gospel writers, Luke alone offers this brief account: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (2:7). Angels, shepherds, and the Magi would follow, but those spectacles could not alter the fact that on the eve of Christ’s birth, Joseph, Mary, and then Jesus were displaced people. Decades of romantic Christmas images notwithstanding, they were on their own.
The vulnerability of the Christ Child on his entrance into the world foreshadows so much of the story that will follow. Matthew’s Gospel supplies the early and brutal evidence. Apparently, the news of Jesus’ birth and the corresponding promise of his rise to Messianic power traveled quickly. Herod panicked. Hoping to eliminate this eventual usurper, he scattered his thugs throughout Bethlehem to find all the male children age two or younger and slaughtered them. What Herod hoped is that his calculated act of unimaginable violence would preserve his power. Picturing this in our present day, look no further than Basher Hafiz al-Assad and his snipers leveling their rifles at women and children desperate to flee the devastation of Allepo.
In fact, the Son of Man has always been an awkward presence among us. In the introduction to his Gospel, John observes, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (1:10-11).
In sharp relief to these stories of resistance and rejection is Mary’s posture of openness. Again, it is Luke who reports that this young and unmarried women made room: room to hear the frightening word of promise spoken to her by Gabriel, the angel of the Lord and then, more radical still, room in her womb for the very Word of God. In those days, Mary had plenty to ponder.
God’s announcement via Gabriel to Mary is a time-honored theme in the visual arts and for good reason: for the Christian West at least, this event is a pivot point in human history. And so, from the Medieval period onward, depictions of the Annunciation would abound, rendered in everything from paint to print, and terracotta to fresco. One such work is Titian’s Annunciation (c.1559-64), on view in the place for which it was commissioned, the church of San Salvador in Venice.
More than a few modern artists—among them Oskar Kokoschka, Maurice Denis, Émile Henri Bernard, Andy Warhol, and Brice Marden—have also felt compelled to render this biblical theme. To that end, many quoted or appropriated historically significant works of art and for all manner of reasons—ironic comment, academic study, and even personal devotion.
Notably, the prolific German artist, Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) can be counted among this group. At a mid-point in his career, Richter had, he says, noticed the striking image of Titian’s Annunciation on a postcard and found it so compelling that he set out to make a copy of it for himself. In 1973, with oil paint and brushes in hand and a stretched linen canvas before him, Richter, “a painter’s painter,” went to work. What resulted was the creation of a five-painting series entitled The Annunciation After Titian. While each is based on Titian’s sixteenth-century work, they are rendered in varying degrees of abstraction.
To say the least, Richter’s methods and work are open to multiple readings and interpretations, including important questions about the purpose and meaning of painting itself. But for our purposes here, let me offer two simple observations. First and as already noted, the Annunciation—or at least Titian’s version of it—captured Richter’s imagination. Second, the gestural blur of Richter’s paint and brush—a feature present in much of his work—is, for me, evocative. Contrasted to the didactic nature of Titian’s brilliant effort, the formal space of Richter’s canvas is open and dynamic. If you will, the gestural quality of all five paintings in Richter’s The Annunciation After Titian seem to make room for the Spirit. To be clear, my purpose here is not to overburden Richter’s work with a particular religious meaning that he may or may not have intended. What I do mean to say is that I find the painter’s treatment of the Annunciation spiritually evocative.
Jesus’ presence is still a problem. The Son of Man, who could find no place to lay his head, keeps looking for places to stay. Early on, his presence can seem to be a good thing. After all, Jesus is a gifted story teller. He’s charming, smart, and connected (talk about networks). But then he stays on. He starts tampering with our “stuff” and messing with our “things.” Unannounced, he alters our plans, questions our habits, counters our world-view. It is not a little unsettling to have the one who made us and the world we inhabit interfere with our plans for self-formation and self-fulfillment.
In his day, Jesus’ earthly ministry overflowed with light, life, and healing. To those who lived in great fear and darkness, he came bearing good gifts—the promise of peace and direction and fidelity. He came full of grace. But it turns out that grace requires room, it takes up space.
If Christmas Eve and the days that follow go well for us, there may be welcome reunions, a feast or two, and some memorable gifts. Celebrate these good things. But the deeper invitation in these days is to make room for the Christ Child. If, like me, you are desperate to see light in this season, make room, find time, create space. Alongside Mary, there will be no shortfall of things for us to ponder.
Cameron J. Anderson is the Executive Director of CIVA and the author of The Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts.