Fear and Desire in Christmas


Break forth into joy, sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem: for the Lord hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem.

(Isaiah 52. 7-10)

            Christmas is now considered as, dare I say it, the most wonderful time of the year: nostalgiac images of snow-laden streets, a fiery hearth, and an abundance of presents under a tree forms the stuff of our greetings cards, movies, songs, and popular imagination.  And such joy is of course commendable both in popular and theological terms.  Isaiah exclaims to the near ruins of Jerusalem and to God’s exiled people that God is redeeming them and recreating the holy city.  John’s Prologue (John 1. 1-14) tells of how the eternal Word became flesh and dwelt among us, a light shining in the darkness.  Joy abounds indeed in our texts this morning.

          Not to cast a dark shadow into the brightly light room of our Christmas celebrations, but I want to begin somewhere else, however.  I want to begin in the prior waste places of Jerusalem, the darkness that comprehendeth not the light.  I want to begin here because that first Christmas begins there.  Before our saccharine walks down amnesia lane, both the Old and New Testaments remind us that God comes into dark times and places: for the Jewish exiles, that destruction of Jerusalem; for the Gospels, a world crippled by violence, pain, hurt, and sin.  God comes into dangerous places; God joins us where we are, and invites us to find him there, to point to Him as the light out of the darkness.

          Above there is an oil painting by Da Vinci called The Virgin of the Rocks.  There are two versions of the painting, and reproduced here is the one which now hangs in the Louvre, although it was originally designed to be part of an altar piece.  I wonder which you think the most significant feature?  The Virgin Mary gently steadying the prayerful child Jesus?  The infant John the Baptist pointing to Christ, much as John’s prologue tells us that the Baptist was sent to bear witness of that Light?  The angel also pointing to Christ, reminding the viewer of the legend that John was escorted to Egypt by an angel in order to avoid the massacre of the Innocents by Herod’s men, just as Joseph fled with Jesus and Mary?  For me, the most significant feature is not the human and angelic figures at all but the landscape, cavernous, dark, and dangerous, sharply jutting through autumnal foliage.  This is where God comes, and it is here in which all point to Christ as God-in-the-flesh.  No nuclear glow of a sanitised crib, but the precarious and otherworldly setting of a rocky enclave, in the turning of the seasons, surreally floating in a Dali-esque fashion.

          What are we to make of such an image of the Incarnation which we celebrate at Christmas?  One critic thinks that the cavernous location of the Virgin of the Rocks might well have been influenced by Da Vinci’s excursions into northern Italy. In one notebook, Da Vinci describes the region’s awe-inspiring geological formations thus: “Drawn by my eager desire I wandered some way among gloomy rocks, coming to the entrance of a great cavern, in front of which I stood for some time, stupefied and uncomprehending such a thing… Suddenly two things arose in me, fear and desire: fear of the menacing darkness of the cavern; desire to see if there was any marvellous thing within.”  The darkness of the cave in da Vinci’s famous altarpiece, its precisely delineated and overgrown rocks, does indeed contain a marvellous thing: the Virgin Mary, tenderly enraptured by her child, and John the Baptist, accompanied by a mysteriously smiling, pointing angel with curly hair and soft, liquid eyes, all four figures united in a compositional circle.  Amidst the gloomy, fearful sfumato of the rocks shines out the tenderness of Immanuel, God-with-us, Jesus, God saves.  In the words of Isaiah, the Lord hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem and there is new hope.

          So it is that we are called to desire God even amidst the darkness of our own fear, our own rocky places, both this Christmas and always.  Such desire will transform us, the Scriptures say, that we might know grace and truth, that we will know how the Lord hath comforted his people.  In Da Vinci’s terrifying landscape, four figures are lit up by divine light — illuminated, as if from within, by a blessed and mysterious presence.  So too, in the midst of our sweeter images of Christmas, and in the reality of our rocky places, can we know, be enlightened by, and point to God’s continuing birth in our lives, selves, and communities.