The Meaning of Christmas in Five Paintings 2 - Jesus was Fully Human (John Everett Milas, Christ in the House of his Parents)
Readings 2 John 1:1-10, Matthew 1:18-25
John Everett Milas painted Christ in the House of his Parents (The Carpenter’s House) around 1849 and by golly did it cause controversy.
Those who read the e-news will have already seen this, but Charles Dickens, acclaimed (and beloved) author of Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, and (importantly) A Christmas Carol despised this painting. Of the figure of Mary (in the centre in blue) he wrote, "so hideous in her ugliness that ... she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England" and that Jesus resembled, "wry-necked, blubbering red-headed boy in a bed-gown, who appears to have received a poke ... playing in an adjacent gutter."
What was it in this representation of the Holy Family that elicited such anger and disgust from Dickens? And what might all this have to do with the meaning of Christmas?
Let’s get to that by way of our readings. Our reading from Matthew will be well known to many. Our reading from the second letter of John (that small little book, covering only about half a page right at the back of your bible) is perhaps a little less known. Both, however, are concerned with a central testimony of the Christian faith: Jesus Christ was fully human.
Jesus, to go back to the creeds, was born of Mary. Borrowing the words of O Come All Ye Faithful, "Lo! he abhors not the Virgin's womb," Jesus did not come to earth any other way than the way we all come to earth: born – a human baby, of a human mother. Immaculate as his conception might be, it does not take away from the ordinary humanness of his birth – and all the things that go with it (with apologies to Away in a Manger, I’m sure our Lord did a little bit of crying that first Silent Night). The openings of the Gospel of Matthew take pains to stress the birth of Jesus, not only in the narrative today, but in what surrounds it: the genealogy to place Jesus within a particular lineage and history, the detail given to the character of his parents, and the context in which they lived. Let no one opening a New Testament miss it, this Jesus you are about to meet, he is Emmanuel, God with us, and he was born of Mary, he is fully human.
Sometimes the fullness of this humanity can be difficult to grapple with. It asks us to admit that Jesus experienced the complete vulnerability of infancy – relying on the adults in his life for every need basic to his survival. It asks us to accept that Jesus learnt – in the way we all do, observing and listening to those around him. Jesus scuffed knees, got dirty, celebrated rites and rituals, and grew up in a family that laboured and toiled under difficult conditions.
And yet, just a generation or so after his death there are some within the community of Christians who are propagating the idea that Jesus was not actually human after all… he was certainly God, he was absolutely divine, undeniably transcendent… and because of that he cannot possibly be human… that would be unseemly, utterly unfitting for a God to take on flesh and dwell among us… I mean, have you seen us have you seen flesh?
And so, the author of the second letter of John has to write to the woman leading this Christian community and say, Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. It is not for nothing that the first letter of John opens We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life. This Jesus, the one we are always talking about – we saw him and more importantly we touched him! Retreating earlier in the corpus of John, the gospel ends with scenes of Thomas putting his hands in the wounds of the resurrected Christ and Jesus sitting on the beach and eating fish with his disciples – this man had a body, which could be touched, which ate, which shared rooms with us. This is what it means to say the word took on flesh and lived among us. Jesus, however immaculate his conception, however miraculous his resurrection, however full his divinity is human, fully human, no caveats or conditions.
And so we return to this painting and observe that what lies beneath its vehement rejection by those such as Dickens, is that this painting dares to present a human (and rather ordinary and mundane) holy family. The realism of the carpenter’s workshop (with its dirt and offcuts), the “plainness” of Mary and the balding of Joseph, the woundedness of Jesus who was – believe it or not – considered a little too Jewish in this painting… all of this combines to affront the viewer by making the holy family and the youthful saviour as too ordinary, too ugly, too human. Against the tradition of a beautiful, serene, ever-virginal Mary and a gorgeous, stoic, stern Jesus, and a sort of absent but if not then just kind of there Joseph, we are presented with a familiar and approachable domestic scene. The whole family at work, in a place well-worn by their labour, all now paused with concern to remove a splinter from the hand of the child who didn’t know you couldn’t run your hand across untreated wood. The very ordinariness of the scene is an affront to those who cannot abide the idea of a God who would get down in the muck of life, a God who would suffer, a God who would face the humiliation of public execution, a God who would need to rely on and learn from others, a God who needed to be nursed, a God who abhorred not the virgin’s womb.
And while we might chuckle at Dickens, and consider those who proposed an angelic Jesus floating an inch off the ground a relic of Christianity’s strange history with heretics, the true ethical danger posed by such an inability to see and accept a human Jesus, is that we become unable to see and accept Jesus in the humans he told us he would be present with… the hungry, the stranger, the imprisoned, the naked, the least and last of our world, the wretched of the earth, those most plain and unremarkable of people.
And so this painting draws us to the meaning of Christmas; Jesus Christ (Emmanuel) was born of Mary – he was a child who cried and nursed and learnt and grew. He was a boy raised in a poor family, who were forced to flee their homeland to escape persecution, who worked with their hands to survive. He was a boy who – as a carpenter’s son – got a splinter or two… it is in such places of modesty, humility, and vulnerability that the mission of God to reconcile and redeem all things took place, and it is in such places that we might encounter Emmanuel, God with us, today… if only we are ready to look.
Image: John Everett Milas, Christ in the House of his Parents (The Carpenter’s House) around 1849. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/millais-christ-in-the-house-of-his-parents-the-carpenters-shop-n03584
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