The Meaning of Christmas in Five Paintings 4 - Christmas Comes in Times Such as These (Katherine Kenny Bayly, The Passion of Mary)
Image: Katherine Kenny Bayly (American, 1945–), The Passion of Mary, before 2006. Collage on paper, 8 × 12 in.
Readings: Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 and Luke 2: 15-35
Last week we touched on the joy of Mary as she is greeted by Elizabeth. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit exclaims to Mary, blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Mary, considering these words, sings her famous Magnificat, acknowledging that in receiving favour from God, all generations will call me blessed.
We pick up from there in the gospel reading today, Mary, the God-bearer, is greeted by the shepherds who tell her about their remarkable encounter with the angels. And Mary, we read, treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
The joy and good news continues for Mary when she brings the infant Jesus to the Temple. Simeon shares gleefully that in seeing Jesus he has seen God’s salvation, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of God’s people Israel. Mary is amazed once more.
From Gabriel’s annunciation, to Elizabeth’s joy, to the shepherds account, to Simeon’s glorifying, Mary has much to treasure and ponder, much to bring her joy, much to shape and affirm her calling as the mother of the Incarnate God – his nurturer and first teacher.
Katherine Kenny Bayly’s collage, The Passion of Mary, combines Michelangelo’s Pietà with a Virgin and Child painting by Laurent de La Hyre. So far, what Mary (and we) have heard provides perfect motivation for the painted, La Hyre, portions of this collage. Mary joyfully and meaningfully embracing the Christ child, looking at him and cradling his head in love and adoration. Perhaps singing her song to the babe in her care, My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.
And yet, there’s a turn… this very soul which magnifies the Lord, this very soul which has been pondering and treasuring this abundance of good news and wonder, Simeon says, a sword will pierce [this] soul too.
Mary’s child, who Gabriel announced will be called the Son of the Most High, who Elizabeth called her Lord, who the angels declared saviour, who Simeon named God’s light for all people, this same child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.
This turn, this surprising and devastating counter-weight to all that has so far been announced, serves to interrupt the good news and wonder so far treasured and pondered. This interruption is so well captured in the over half of Bayly’s collage. The serene and undisturbed image of adoring mother cradling her lively young child is interrupted, unsettled, and pierced by the image of the grieving mother cradling her dead adult child. Michelangelo’s Pietà, one of the most famous Easter images, crashes into Christmas – for the one who found favour with God and blessing among women, a sword shall piece her own soul too.
No one’s life is one dimensional – not even Mary (herself so often reduced to a picturesque statue or symbol of meek and mild). Even the God-bearer is not insulated from the world – Mary has desires and determination, she experiences joy and terror, she theologises and teaches, she nurtures and asserts, she celebrates and she grieves. Because Mary, like all of us, lives in times such as these… times marked by seasons beyond our control: times to plant and pluck up, to weep and laugh, to mourn and dance, to keep silence and speak, to seek and lose. Bayly’s collage embodies these dichotomous times… a time to embrace your infant child in the perfect peace of their safe deliverance, and a time to embrace your adult child in the distraught desolation of their untimely and unjust death. Not all of us will experience the same times as Mary, but all of us know too well that life is never one season, never one time, no matter how much we might wish it to be so.
And so this painting draws us closer to the meaning of Christmas. First by bringing us nearer the fullness of Mary, in all her complexity, agency, and fragility, and then by reminding us that the story of Christmas, like the story of Christ, like the story of we Christians does not take place in insulated and idealistic times, but in times such as these, the time of seasons: rain and shine, birth and death. Christmas comes in times such as these for it is these times that need the salvation God has prepared for all people. It is these times that need good news to treasure and ponder in our hearts. It is in times of swords that we need most the Prince of Peace.
Christmas is the story of the eternal God moving into time, taking on flesh and finitude. It is the story of God, who is outside of time, and not subject to seasons, being born into time. This does not mean that time thus has mastery over God, but it is so God might redeem time itself. God steps into history to demonstrate God’s steadfast love in the midst of the changing seasons, and to show that though there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven, there will be a time when we shall live on earth as it is in heaven… a time is appointed (though we know not when) when we shall live without sorrow or violence, we shall live without the sting of death, without fear and threat, absence and injustice, where the swords that piece the souls will be beaten into ploughshares, where the dead shall rise, where we shall walk together in the land of the living and sit at banquet tables in the household of God. A time is approaching where the feelings of peace, purpose, and joy that we – like Mary – experience in those moments where we gaze with love on Jesus, or one another, will no longer be interrupted, disturbed, or pierced.
Let us encourage one another to live in this time, like that time is coming, enjoying and sharing its foretastes in our life together amidst the seasons.
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