Paint Yourself Into the Nativity

Hugo van der Goes, The Adoration of the Child Jesus.Shortly after we were married, Faith and I purchased a wonderful reproduction of Hugo van der Goes, “The Adoration of the Child Jesus.” It is a triptych done on three wooden panels about eight inches high which we have set on our mantles, tables, and desks. For 47 years, it has been at the center of our lives.

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Jesus occupies the middle of the center panel, lying on the ground all alone. It is as if immediately after he was born, those present placed him naked on the earth and stepped back to worship. There they are kneeling in a circle all around him, Mary and Joseph, angels of all sorts and sizes, kneeling, standing, and flying, in plain gowns and richly brocaded robes. And, of course, the shepherds as if they came with a shout falling over one another straining to see or smiling impishly as they pray in their tattered clothes. One has a bare knee showing through his torn trousers.

The side panels always puzzled me, however. They were filled with imposing, dignified figures that joined in the adoration, men on one side, women on the other. For the life of me, I could not identify any of them. They certainly were not part of the Bible story.

Rather early I learned the four larger, very dignified standing figures were saints: Thomas Aquinas the medieval Roman theologian and Anthony the third century hermit monk on the left panel; Two women friends of the adult Jesus, Martha the ever-busy worker and Mary Magdalene portrayed as a prostitute on the right. Artists painted saints into such scenes as if they belonged there even though they had not been present.

It was not much later that I discovered the five remaining black garbed figures worshipping so devoutly in the forefront of the panels were the family of the man who paid the bill. The Medici banker, Tomassco Portinari, appears with his sons on the left while Portinari's wifehis wife Marie worshipped with Portinari's daughtertheir daughter on the right. You could almost hear Pontinari telling van der Goes, “I want to be there. Paint me in and my family also. Paint us on our knees.”

Years later I realized how successful he was. I entered a room in the Uffizzi to face the original. It was huge. Portinari and his family were bigger than life. In spite of the 1500 years that separated them, he had really placed himself right along side the shepherds and angels, Mary and Joseph.

After that I began to pay attention to all those people grouped in various poses in the large classic paintings. Suddenly all the nobility who resided in 15th century Florence became the wise men and their regal retinue going to greet the Christ Child. A prince’s grandfather appeared as a wise man or a town character as a shepherd. They all wanted to be there, but strangely many did not choose to be pictured devoutly worshiping as the Portinaris. Sometimes the donor will be hardly paying any attention to the event.

I remember one looking over his shoulder as if to remark, “You do notice I’m here, don’t you?” And another looking right out of the painting with a look that seems to say “I had to paint this scene and wanted to be included, but I want you to know I don’t believe a bit of it.”

Along the way I discovered I was unconsciously using an ancient 13th century Franciscan devotional practice. In a day when few could read a Bible, the monks taught people to contemplate works of art using their imaginations to place themselves in the Bible stories. In a sense, you were to paint yourself into the picture. The goal was to explore the Gospel’ claim that we find our true selves in the way we respond to Jesus.

Let’s try that devotional practice now. Let’s imagine ourselves gathering with others around the manger. Consider how you would paint yourself into the nativity scene.

My guess is not all of us would choose to be like the Pontinaris, devoutly on our knees adoring the Christ Child. Some might want to be thoughtful searchers, struggling to understand what is happening, perhaps holding our heads as if trying to figure out what this is all about. Others might portray ourselves as cynics, maybe there because their family wanted them to come; laughing at all the devotion in what seems to be just another ordinary birth. And certainly some would be sleeping through it all, oblivious to anything but our own needs.

You might paint yourself as a poor person, too busy holding the swords or caring for the horses of the wealthy to worship, maybe kneeling not to acknowledge the Christ but to adjust the spurs of the nobility. Or as one of those young girls, distracted from what is really important by the glitter of a gold box. Maybe you would see yourself as a richly dressed wise man kneeling to worship, or maybe as one holding a gift but still not sure if you are ready to bow down to anyone. Some of you might place yourselves way in the background, perhaps as a leper waiting for Jesus to grow up and heal you or as a soldier obeying the king’s order to arm yourself for massacring innocent children.

Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Perhaps the best way to see how you fit would be to ask other people to paint you at the manger. Perhaps the way your spouse or your children or your parents or your neighbor or your fellow workers paint you at the manger is the real you when you really get down to it.

No, wait again. The real you is not how you would paint yourself, or how your neighbor would paint you. We are here this morning to proclaim to one another, “The real you is how God paints you at the manger. No matter what you think or the world says, you are loved. God includes you at the manger as someone he loves. He loves you so much he comes as a little baby to rescue you along with the rest of us. He loves you whether you are a worshipper, a seeker, a skeptic, a cynic, or a sleeper.

As much as I love the van der Goes triptych it does not say enough, It is not enough to paint the baby Jesus lying passively on the ground accepting our praise and adoration. The real Christmas message is caught by those paintings in which Mary holds Jesus as he reaches out to all of those gathered. No matter how we see ourselves, he reaches out to hug us; reaches out to bless us.

In one of my favorites, he looks down at the king kissing his foot, sees the light reflected from the his bald pate, extends his hand and ah!, here the mystery is sealed, rubs the king’s head. At least that is what I thought when I first looked. Later I wondered if the artist was trying to have him lay his hand on the king’s head to bless him. In the end I supposed he wanted us to think of both. At Christmas God reaches out to bless us, touch us, hug us. And he never lets go.

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