Glimpsed through gallery doors at the end of a long, dark hall, the painting seems like a world beckoning me into its warmth. I walk toward it. Out of the echoing, impersonal galleries, out of the grey, sere cold of a February day, out of my own loneliness after a morning of wandering London footsore and pregnant and not at all able to enjoy it as I’ve hoped, I step into the circle of radiant light cast by Maíno’s Adoration of the Shepherds. The painting stretches from floor to ceiling and the lively, expressive figures seem life-sized; the gang of boy angels spying on the manger, a flushed and solemn Joseph kissing the fat baby’s head, shepherds sprawled at the manger’s feet in easy awe or leaning with clasped hands and tender amazement over the manger, Mary, gentle, amused, pondering it all. I join her, grateful to rest my weary bones on the gallery bench as I strive to put my finger on the allure this jubilant painting bears for me. I sit and gaze and as muscles and heart ease, I realize. This painting draws me into the circle of its fellowship. I too belong here. I, like all those dear people in the picture, each summoned by the call of an angel, am bidden to join the merry circle gathered round the baby where Love is already at work, gurgling, kicking, giving, to reconcile the world. Redemption begins here, as shepherds and kings, young girls and sceptical fiancés are drawn together round the baby in whom Love has come to renew the world. This is the core, heart’s beat of Christmas and it reaches out to me as I sit and stare, and feel my weariness falling away…
That painting has come often to my mind in this season of Advent; it seems to image my destination, the fellowship and light toward which I journey in prayer out of the darklands of loneliness or discouragement. The older I get, the more I understand that the Christmas wonder I felt as a child, the awe I could almost taste in the Christmas season, is real because it invites us into the illusive joy, that sense of homecoming we hunger for as adults with a daily, desperate need. In the scene of the nativity we encounter innocence confounding evil, song shattering darkness, a space in which all are made equal in their simple adoration of the love come so frail and sweet to redeem each broken heart. The painting reminds me of some theology I read that made my heart soar; Jon Sobrino’s idea of what the Incarnation accomplishes as ‘filiation’. The renewal of family connection between all humans. In Christ, son of a wondrous Father, we are made children afresh and thus, we all become brothers and sisters again. We are no longer strange to each other. In that circle of fellowship at the manger, in the light cast by the baby, we encounter each other as if for the first time in the possibility of forgiveness, the renewal of community. I think this is why, however sentimental or secularized we feel the rituals have become,
Christmas still means ‘coming home’,
being once more enfolded in the place where we have most keenly known what it means to belong. As I sit here, in my Oxford living room and think back to where I have tasted that belonging the most, I realize it is another nativity scene: my family’s annual ‘shepherd’s meal’. And I remember…
I can feel the great, friendly darkness just beyond the kitchen door as I nip the last basket of herbed bread, the last little plate of cheese and fruit through the archway into the dining room. As I set them on the table, my brother switches off the kitchen light and we are left in the warm, dappled darkness of the Christmas tree lights and a table laden with a dozen candles, with fresh herbed bread, cheeses, fruit, and the fragrant, steaming bowls of potato soup that make the centre of our yearly shepherd’s meal. Years ago this became tradition in our home; it must have been when we were quite small, a bevy of children enchanted by the idea of spending our Christmas Eve pretending that we were the shepherds out in the fields, eating our simple soup and bread in the long, cold dark, about to be startled to joy by an angel’s song. Twenty something years on and it has become the feast and moment that most of us treasure as our favorite part of Christmas. The food has gotten decidedly more gourmet in the intervening years, but the total darkness of the house has not, nor the candlelight and laughter, nor the requisite reading of Luke’s account of the angel’s visit to the shepherds (though these days my mom no longer billows through the room at the height of the story in a white gown, pretending to be an angel… I’m rather sorry about that). Nor has our habit of dragging friends and strangers into our little tradition. My husband joins now, of course, but we’ve also over the years had a long, steady stream of teenage friends, lonely souls, and random acquaintances join us at our shepherd’s feast. We are a little like those shepherds on their way to find Jesus with the angel’s song in their hearts; we tend to grab whoever will join us in this moment of feasting and worship and celebration. Each year, I sit a little back from the conversation for a moment, quiet, alert, aware of the way that our feast weaves those round the table together in a divine kind of love, aware of the way that we somehow participate in the joy and fellowship of those original shepherds and that angelic event. There, in our modern darkness echoes the great, promising song of the angels heard in the blackness of a Bethlehem night. And the nativity continues as we are drawn together in memory, in worship, in celebration…
But I dread the Shepherd’s Meal this year. I dread it because I love it, and because I know that this Shepherd’s meal may be my last with my family for many years to come. My husband is training for priesthood in the Anglican church and our Christmases, starting next year, will be working days for him. We will no longer have the freedom to travel to see our families. Already, I can imagine the long, solitary quiet of Christmas Eve next year when my lovely husband will be away at church for a service and I will be alone at home, with the little one, cooking a feast and missing the family to eat it with, keening inside for the noise and bustle of those far away. Having a baby makes me so aware of my incapacity to protect or give or provide everything I want to; I am so poignantly aware of the frailty in myself.
I’ve thought often of Maíno’s painting in a different way in the last days, because I’m beginning to wonder how it is that we find the manger, find that circle of belonging where Jesus comes to reconnect us to each other, when we are alone. Christmas is notoriously the season in which loneliness and isolation do their worst. Suicides rise at Christmas. Families disintegrate under the pressure of tangled, unspoken resentment. The very depth of fellowship we yearn for in this season only makes our loneliness harder to bear, only heightens the hurt we have known, the lack of love or the isolation we can taste like bitterness in our mouths.
My last weeks have been full of pained deliberation over my husband’s next move to a church. We’ve looked at jobs, we’ve driven round neighborhoods, we’ve had serious talks and at the end of it all, with complications galore, I feel panic rising. I already feel isolated, alone, I’m already tasting the lonely hours with my little daughter when I don’t know who to call. I’m already tasting that sense of being uprooted and untethered that moving has always brought to my somewhat fragile sense of well being. And I begin to wonder, what does it mean to come home at Christmas if you can’t? How do we find belonging when we’re not sure where we belong or we are separated from those who do? How does the Nativity come again in our Christmastimes if we are alone and afraid and not sure how to get there?
I sit in the predawn darkness of my tiny, English row house living room. My brave, slightly scrawny little Christmas tree sits on a table by the window, bedecked in the few lights I could twist round his branches. Coffee steams in one hand and I hold a book open in the other, striving in the navy light of the early morning to find my sense of centre and peace… before the baby wakes up. My thoughts feel scattered like seeds in the wind, I cannot gather them. So I focus my eyes on the poem before me. And the words swell up, bold, hard;
It was a time like this,
War & tumult of war,
a horror in the air…
Madeleine L’Engle’s frank statement of the what the world looked like when the Christ child came, what it still looks like today. War and tumult. Lust and greed (she goes on). A baby come ‘into the darkest hour’ (the title of her poem). I find a gracious catharsis in those words. I realize that part of my panic this year about Christmas – and all the possibly lonely Christmases to come – is rooted in my sense that one is doomed or incapable if one is unhappy at Christmas. Yet this is the world into which the little baby came, this is my world, rife with isolation and war, horror and despair. We have so commercialized and idealised Christmas that we forget what a battle move it is on the part of heaven, a radical invasion of light because the darkness, our darkness, is so great. To admit that, to remember it, feels like a kind of rejuvenation. I read on, my heart beating faster:
And in a time like this
how celebrate his birth
when all things fall apart?
Ah! Wonderful it is
with no room on the earth
the stable is our heart.
And at those last words, my eyes halt, my breath catches, my heart exults.
For weeks now, as I have wrestled with the uncertainty of where we will live in the years to come, as that anxiety has crystalized around my doubt of finding home or comfort or belonging at Christmas, I have assumed that the circled fellowship of the Nativity was something outside of myself, something I could lose, something I might not be able to find again without my family. L’Engle’s words ring out in me like fire and freedom. The stable, the circle of fellowship where Christ is born and I am drawn to worship, oh God be blessed, is in my heart. Do you ever wonder what that phrase in Paul’s letter, ‘Christ in me, hope of glory’ means? I think I glimpse it in the poem’s closing line and it shifts the way I see myself in the world. Christ is daily born in our hearts, indwelling those who love him so that our very lives become the site of his ceaseless nativity. Here, in the grounds of my frail, faulty being, Christ comes in the same vulnerable love of his baby life. Here in my hours and days, angel songs echo with the joy he brings. Here, in my own being, the circle of belonging is begun and completed by the God who is ever ‘with me’ and makes me one with all who belong to him.
I have only to recognize it and arrive at the stable circle where he sits, already with me. I have only to rejoice and draw others to do so with me. I have only to so root myself in that circled Love that it shapes the quiet in which I find myself. I begin, not to fear, but to imagine, and this is where the life of the child grows great as new horizons open. I can see what I might create, how I might love, what the Christmases before me might look like, the people I might invite, the feasts I might craft, the Shepherd’s meal I might continue in my own little vicarage in some corner of England yet to be discovered, the lonely soul I might draw into the circle of love…and the nativity begins, ever again.
The image of the nativity is courtesy of the gifted and generous photographer Ben White of Unsplash.
Thank you, Ben for sharing your gifted eye and skill!
Many blessings to you from all of us at Cultivating and The Cultivating Project!
Sarah Clarkson is a writer and student of theology. Through blogs, books, and current research, she explores the formative power of story, the intersection of theology and imagination, and the way that beauty brings hope. She writes books (Book Girl, The Lifegiving Home) and finished an MSt at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, where she focused on theodicy (and why beauty may be the best argument we can make for the goodness of God). She chronicles her adventures at sarahclarkson.com and is at work on her next book, Beauty Never Lies (with Baker Books, 2021). Celtic music, good coffee, travel adventures, long walks, and of course, good books are the beauties that make her heart sing. Sarah lives in a tree-blessed house near the English coast where she lives and laughs with her curate husband, Thomas, and their daughter, Lilian.