Glory to God and peace on earth !
My Christmas greetings this year are inspired by Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Nativity. Rublev was born just a few years after the first wave of the Black Death, which killed millions of people across the globe from 1347 to 1352.
It was with this harsh and chaotic backdrop that the artist decided to depict this Nativity scene. It seems to me that this image can bring us comfort as we approach the end of 2020 and as we, in our turn, are in the throes of a global pandemic.
We can sense an agitation and a struggle among the figures in the icon: in the centre we find Mary, the Theotokos – the Mother of God – and Jesus her child, lying in a manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes. Against a black background, which symbolizes all of the world’s darkness, suffering and silence, our Saviour is born – so fragile.
I hope this icon, which beautifully illustrates the dynamic of the coming of Jesus into our world, offers us support and solace during these difficult times. As we contemplate it, we may find that the various characters that are featured reveal to us aspects of our own sacred history!
Perhaps we are a bit like the shepherds, who appear to the Virgin’s right. These simple, poor men, whose lives are closely intertwined with the cycles of nature, persevere in faithfulness as they await the Saviour’s coming. Or maybe we are like the rich and wise magi, in the upper left corner of the icon, who arrive from afar; they are not able to name their faith but are filled with a sincere desire as they seek wisdom. They recognize that there exist a kingship and a power that are infinitely greater than those belonging to the kingdoms of the earth!
There are also the midwives and deaconesses, at the lower right. These are the people who care for and serve others. They show us that it is in the practical things of daily life – especially in challenging times, such as the one we are going through now – that Christ leads us in his light of compassion and love. Finally, we have Saint Joseph, at the bottom left, beset by a demon who is whispering to him that the mystery of the Incarnation is not real. Saint Joseph does not give in to this temptation to doubt. He protects the child Jesus and his mother and participates in salvation history. Through his quiet strength and perseverance, he honours all parents, teachers and catechists, who witness in the shadows and announce the good news of the Saviour’s birth!
With Saint Francis of Assisi, the angels and all the saints, may we let our joy ring forth on this wonderful night of Christmas:
This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice in it and be glad. For to us is given the beloved child most holy, born for us along the way and placed in a manger because there was no room for him at the inn. Glory to the Lord God in the highest and on earth peace to those of good will. Let the heavens rejoice and earth exult, let the sea and all that is in it roar, let fields and everything in them sing for joy. Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth!
(Psalm 15:6-10, from The Geste of the Great King: Office of Francis of Assisi, translated and with an introduction by Laurent Gallant, OFM)
Brother Pierre Charland, OFM
Franciscans of Canada