A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 356: Christmas in Masterpieces, Part 5


Fear, anxiety, murderous rage – these are not the emotions we normally associate with Christmas. Of course, that could describe your holiday family get-together for all I know…

This is the season when “Joy” and “Peace” dominate the decorations. We associate words like wonder and glory and adoration and love and family with Christmas. It is right that we should do so. At its core the story is of God the Father who cares so much for his world, his creation, that he sends his only Son to us to save us. This alone should cause great praise and joyful songs to spring from us (as it has done over the centuries). But also attached to  the Christmas story are themes like faithfulness, sacrifice, generosity and hope – themes that can be celebrated by the believer or non-believer alike.

However, the great weight of our celebrations hang on a partial reading of the full Christmas story.  For Christians there are the weeks leading up to the big day, a season called Advent, in which readings from the Old Testament prophets remind us of the time of waiting and anticipating the coming Messiah. Then, of course, come the pre-Christmas Day moments – the Annunciation when Mary is told she’ll be with child, the dream of Joseph telling him to marry her, the journey to Bethlehem – all important aspects of our view of the holiday story. We’ve come to include the Magi at the stable along with the shepherds, though it is now believed that those visitors from the east came along likely two to three years after the famous birthday.

For the most part, the above elements (plus the famed heavenly host) make up the characters and circumstances of the very familiar Christmas story. But that is not where the biblical narrative ends. In fact, the story continues in a chilling and violent direction. No one would ever put “Danger” and “Death” in their Christmas decorations (unless you are seriously disturbed) but that is exactly how this great story of the beginning of the life of Christ ends.

Today, to finish my series on Christmas in masterpieces, I present two works that wrap up the story. The first is Flight to Egypt by Goossen van der Weyden (c. 1516) and the second is The Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Bruegel


Goossen van der Weyden, Flight to Egypt, c. 1516

The threat of imminent danger is the driving force behind Joseph and Mary packing up their belongings and taking their child to safety in Egypt. In the story, Joseph is warned by an angel in a dream to leave Bethlehem, as King Herod was seeking their son in order to kill him. This reality of their story makes the Holy Family the most famous refugees in history, forced to flee their home and loved ones. This painting by van der Weyden is one of two panels of an altarpiece which found a home eventually in the National Gallery in London. There is not much of desperation or fear in this painting, at least not on the initial viewing. It seems too pastoral and colorful, the look on Mary’s face too serene, to pass for an image of refugees fleeing possible death. We have seen the faces of refugees in our news – exhausted, emotionally overwrought, eyes filled with anxiety. Here we see what passes for a pleasant journey on a beautiful day.

There is, however, the “massacre of the innocents” happening in the distance, the very event the family flees from: Herod had ordered his death squads to Bethlehem to kill all boy children two years old and younger. This horrific element of the story is a tiny detail in the background of this work. The artist has chosen to focus on Mary and the child, perched atop a friendly-looking donkey.

The profound imagery for me in this painting is that of the Christ child nursing at Mary’s breast. Today we have such a squeamish attitude towards women nursing their babies in public, and outrage follows the slightest hint of a bare breast in public viewing (i.e. the “wardrobe malfunction” of a Super Bowl half-time show past), that the presentation here of both strikes me as instructional to the paradox of our prudish yet permissive society. The artist pictures it here in very realistic terms for a painting done in 1516. It is a mother tending to her vulnerable child, completely in need of assistance for all things from his parents. Anyone who has cared for a newborn, be they the parents or not, knows that those little bundles of pooping, crying and eating are maybe the most helpless of all the young in the animal kingdom.

Vulnerability – herein lies the core of this painting and the somewhat secret core of this part of the Christmas story. We are told that an angel came in a dream to Joseph, but no angel armies come to protect the Son of God. He is the one in desperate need in this painting, and, as with all newborns, has no clue that he has that desperation to begin with. The idea of God as a fragile, dependent baby is often overlooked in our ideas of Christmas. This thought is outrageous, maybe even blasphemous in the perspective of some people. The Father chooses to place his only Son in the care of weak people in the midst of awful circumstances, where any misstep could mean a violent death.

This message, then, points to the reality of the life of Jesus, and the reality of his sacrificial death. Jesus came to weak people in the midst awful circumstances (the Jews under the oppression of the Roman Empire) and he set out to fulfill his purpose and his mission, where each step he took brought him closer and closer to his own death. No matter how pastoral or colorful we try to picture the life of Jesus Christ, at its core is the God who made himself vulnerable and offered himself up to die.

That whole idea doesn’t sound very much like Christmas to most folks. But without the fragility, without the immense sacrifice and burden of sin and the specter of death, there is no Good News. There would simply be a cute story. And this story is far from cute.

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Pieter Bruegel, The Massacre of the Innocents, c. 1565-67

The Massacre of the Innocents is a very common theme in the history of Western art. There are many, many versions of the scene, some extremely graphic with the bodies of murdered little boys on display. For my purposes I have chosen to go back to Pieter Bruegel. This week I showed you his painting, similar to this one, of Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem for the census. It was another bird’s-eye view of a European town full of people. In the previous painting, it was full of normal human activity, fun and business alike. In this one, there is much human activity as well, but it is fraught with fear and horrific events.

It takes a moment to realize what you are seeing. But a scanning of this work brings revulsion and a deep sadness. Unfortunately, our world, our history, our present still gives us images like this. There are truly horrifying things going on here, no more so than the casual killing of children by a group of soldiers in a circle. Parents weep, plead and beg. Children lie dead in the snow, hang limp in a soldier’s hand or across their mother’s lap. Soldiers break down doors, chase a mother fleeing with their child in her arms, look on impassively as sorrow and blood flow all around them. One soldier, in an ultimate symbol of disregard for the suffering around him, urinates on the side of a building.

Bruegel pictured this in a very contemporary setting for him and his viewers: a simple Dutch village in the depth of winter. He also gives the soldiers a very modern feel by making them Spanish, along with German mercenaries. This is the Massacre of Innocents as a prelude to the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule, also known as the Eighty-Years War. For Bruegel and so many of his countrymen, the murderous rampage of soldiers by order of the despot Herod was not some strange event from centuries past; they were living that reality.

But how could this tragic and violent scene wrap up the Christmas narrative? What begins as the hope of a life foretold for centuries ends with young lives cut short, fear, horror, bloodshed, grief. The prophet Isaiah had written that the Messiah would be called “the Prince of Peace”; the angels who came to those shepherds outside Bethlehem had also proclaimed “peace on earth” and “goodwill” to all.

A merry Christmas? There is a good reason that this part of the narrative doesn’t make its way in to our lore, our decorations, our songs of the season. But it is a shame that it is not remembered the way it once was. The power of evil is great in our world, and all attempts to white-wash it are in vain. This painting was victim to a form of censorship itself as the bloody elements and the dead children were painted over, making it look like soldiers were ransacking a village for food instead of killing innocents. This censorship was ordered by the powerful, of course – in this case the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, who objected to the content of the painting. But restoration has revealed its true content, evil wasn’t allowed to stay covered up.

We do not like this aspect of the story making its way into our jolly holiday. It is an intrusion of painful reality into our escape from it. But the story will not go away. I believe it is preserved, among other reasons, for the simple fact that it displays the deep depravity of human hearts, the awfulness of a world that is wrong, and the desperate need for a Savior, not only to save us but to give us a pattern for right living, for knowing peace and acting on its behalf.

Of all things, Christmas should not be a time for white-washing over wrong. It is a time to acknowledge that we are far from peace on earth, far from goodwill to all people. Is God to blame for this? Has his plan failed? Or are we living as part of that plan, that ongoing plan, to claim the good and live for it, to speak and act in peace, to use each day of our lives for mercy and forgiveness and love to define us?

Only you and I can answer that. Know that a Christmas can only be truly merry when it is merry for all. Christ came not to rule the world and drive out despots. He came to rule in our hearts and drive out the despair that lives there. Ultimately, that is the reason for the season and the driving force of this opening chapter that is the Gospel, the Good News.