The Meaning of Christmas in Five Paintings 5 - Lost in the Crowd (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Census at Bethlehem)
From our Christmas Eve Service.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.
The Census at Bethlehem, by Flemish artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1566 concludes our December series on the Meaning of Christmas in Five Paintings, and provides us an opportunity to consider what it means that the place and manner of Jesus’ birth is determined by governmental decree.
There are some 200 figures going about daily life in this painting, many cramped in the corner to be registered and pay their tax. Toward the bottom, Mary, dressed in blue, is led forward on a donkey by Joseph. But they are hardly noticeable. They blend in amidst the masses, who are being forced to uproot their lives on the whims of foreign oppressors. Bruegel has been praised for the work’s political commentary – connecting the oppression of the Jews in Palestine suffering under a foreign military power (Rome) and the plight of his own Flanders being ruled (and harshly taxed and persecuted) by Spain. Into both contexts comes the holy family, into both contexts comes the promise of Emmanuel, but into both contexts they are almost unrecognisable…
It is the very indistinguishability of the Holy Family that matters most in this painting and in the story in Luke. They are not exempt from the emperor’s decree even though Mary bears the true King. They receive no special treatment in David’s city, even though Mary bears the Messiah come from the line of David. Their names are written on that census just like everyone else… listed with all those who lived at that time. In this Luke, and Bruegel, remind us that Christmas is the story of Emmanuel, God with Us, of the loving choice of God to take on flesh and live among us. At Christmas we celebrate that God has never chosen to remain aloof or aloft from humanity, but has elected that God’s history and our history will be a common history (Barth).
The census reminds us that we should we ever fear that Christ has indeed come to live among us and die and rise for us, look to the registry.
And Christ is registered and thus present among and with us in each and every generation. Bruegel understood this. His painting reminds us that if Christ was born amongst the Jews of Palestine taxed to fund their own persecution, so too is Christ born amongst the exploited Flemish Protestants of the C16th. And when we consider and pray for those sites of persecution, exploitation, dispossession, migration, yearning, and resistance around the world tonight, we can confess that there too, huddled and perhaps hidden in the crowd, is the Holy Family, there too Christ is born to deliver and redeem.
May our eyes be trained, by readings, carols, community and art, to seek and find Christ in these places, so that we might follow him into the crowd, placing our own names on the registry of the world’s population, standing together in the pursuit and promise of deliverance, justice, and redemption.
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