I have been thinking quite a lot about pictures lately, especially pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Christ our Savior. Of course, these reflections are partly the result of the Madonna-and-Child Christmas cards stacking up on my kitchen table. But I have also been painting just such a picture myself for the last two months. Recently I’ve been spending five or six hours most Saturdays sitting beside a master iconographer and learning how a Byzantine-style icon is “written.” The icon I’ve just finished is a traditional image known as “the Tender Kiss,” where the Christ child is shown reaching up to give His mother a peck on the cheek. Writing this icon has been a marvelous, meditative way to spend Advent and prepare for tonight’s great Feast of the Incarnation of our Lord, the Christ Mass.
During the run up to Christmas even our present-day, secular American culture becomes awash in images like this, as the holy Mother and her divine Child grace not only Christmas cards but even shop windows and television ads. Even many of our low-church brothers and sisters, who would be shocked to find an icon or a statue of St. Mary in their places of worship, feel the need to see the events of the Nativity with their own eyes this time of year, setting up manger scenes in front of their churches and adorning their mantles with greeting card images of the Holy Family. We all love to hear the Christmas story each year, but there seems to be something about the birth of our Savior that demands to be seen as well as heard.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” These incomparable words from the beginning of the Gospel according to St. John encapsulate the whole of the Christmas story in one sentence. Tonight we affirm that God the Son, the Essence of the Divine Mind, the sovereign Will through Whom the Universe came into existence, truly God of truly God, begotten of His Father before time and space began, has come down from Heaven and become one of us, eternal Light become flesh and bone, the ethereal become material.
But tonight I would also turn our attention to another passage from Holy Scripture--the first chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians. There Paul tells us that Christ “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. … For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” Note that first phrase: “He is the image of the invisible God.” Here Paul actually uses the Greek word, eikon, or “icon” to describe Christ. He echoes the very words of Jesus on the night He was handed over to suffering and death, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” In the Incarnation the Divine Word becomes the Divine Icon, the invisible God become visible in human flesh.
Yet Christ is not only the Image of God. He is also the perfect Image of mankind as we were meant to be. At their creation Adam and Eve bore the image and likeness of God without blemish in their humanity. Yet that divine likeness in mankind has been obscured in their children through the effects of sin. We were meant to be living icons of perfect Love and Justice, but we have become scratched and stained and faded, bespattered by the world, the flesh, and the devil. That, however, is not the fate God intends for us. As St. Athanasius, one of the greatest defenders of the Catholic faith put it in the early fourth century:
You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so it was with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself.
Thus God the Son was at once both the Supreme Artist and the flawless Model of the divine Image, which our First Parents received at their creation. The One “through whom all things came into being” was born into our world in that stable at Bethlehem so that He might recreate that godly image and likeness within you and me. Thirty years later He would wash us clean by His precious Blood and make our colors as vivid they were in Eden by the power of the Holy Spirit.
And because the things of this fallen world had defaced us, God chose the things of this world to restore us—swaddling clothes and an animal’s feed trough, Roman nails and Judean timber, a linen shroud and a rock-hewn tomb. While our salvation no doubt causes joy in Heaven, it is as earthy as that dusty, smelly stable in Bethlehem and the stony soil of Calvary, where the One in whom “the fullness of God dwelt” at His birth made peace “by the blood of His cross,” Yet life, not death, is the climax of the Christmas story. For what began in Bethlehem two thousand years ago was nothing less than the remaking of the world, the ultimate triumph of Light and Life over death and the grave. The wood of the Christmas manger foreshadows not only the tree of Golgotha but the Tree of Life in the New Jerusalem as well. All three are part of the “good news of great joy for all people” announced by the angels, for the Incarnation we celebrate tonight runs like a golden thread through the gospel of our salvation, from our last day in Eden until the Consummation of all things at the End of Days.
Of course, Christmas focuses our minds on the Divine Humanity that redeemed the world like no other season. And while theologians have spilled buckets of ink down through the ages on the nature of the unbreakable bond between God and mankind forged in the Incarnation, nothing displays its reality quite like the Bread of Life lying in the straw of a barnyard feed trough. That is also why images of Mother Mary and the infant Jesus captivate us so. The fragility of life at its beginning mirrors that at its end. The Baby in the manger and the Servant-King on His Cross are intimately connected. For the precious Blood that was poured out for the world at Calvary was human blood as well as the Blood of God. The hands that were pierced by Roman spikes for our transgressions had once feebly grasped His Mother’s finger as she cooed to Him in the manger, like any other mother with her baby. The forehead that bled from the crown of thorns had known the Virgin’s tender kiss in the stable of Bethlehem. In short, the Life given up for us in Christ’s atoning sacrifice was a human life very like our own as well as the Source of Life Itself. And the victory the God-man won over death at Easter is a victory in which we, His brothers and sisters by adoption, may share by faith in His name.
And that is why “manger scenes” and Christmas pageants and images of Mary and Jesus really do matter. Pictures of our Redeemer and the Blessed Virgin, both shown in all their frail humanity, are a reminder to us that our redemption is not just a fairy tale. It is an established fact of history, as solid as the chalk-covered board on which an icon is painted. When we see the utter dependence of the holy Child upon His mother in such an image, we remember that Jesus Christ—although robed in majesty as the Prince of Heaven--is no mythological figure. He was and is at once both a Man—able to identify with us in all our trials and sorrows and joys--and the God in whose image and likeness we were created. And because of this incomprehensible Truth, the only One who could possibly be our Savior—the only-begotten Son of the Father, the child of Mary of Nazareth, born in the humblest of circumstances-- is in fact our Source of new and unending Life. Glory to God in the Highest, and peace to His people on earth! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.