I spent an hour on Google Images looking for a picture we could use on our chaplaincy Christmas card. Don’t worry: they have an advanced search option that allows you to find pictures that are in the public domain, so you can do this without compromising any copyright laws.
My favourite painting, which we didn’t use, was The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel the Younger, a copy of the better known work by his father. There is so much detail: a snowball fight; an animal being butchered; workmen building the timber frame of a new barn; children playing on the frozen river. It’s like one of those What Do People Do All Day? books by Richard Scarry, minus the educational captions.
On the left, dozens of people are crowded around the entrance to the village inn, desperate for warmth and lodging. At the bottom, the Virgin Mary sits on a donkey, cold and weary. St Joseph, with a carpenter’s saw over his shoulder for identification purposes, motions towards the back of the queue. His body language betrays a sense of relief and excitement that they have finally arrived. But you can imagine a thought bubble emerging above his head with the words: “Blimey! This isn’t looking good. We’ve come too late. What am I going to do? What’s she going to say?”
Why did I end up selecting a more traditional Christmas image instead: The Nativity, by an unknown Austrian master (active around 1400) from the Belvedere palace in Vienna? Why didn’t I choose that powerful Flemish scene? Because I was afraid that people wouldn’t spot the Holy Family. They are marginal figures in a magnificent crowdscape. They are not the dramatic centre of this winter scene. They are at the back of the queue.
Bruegel had the artistic courage to preserve their obscurity and keep them on the periphery. This is an Advent truth that I was too timid to embrace. God chose an extraordinary woman to be the mother of his Son, but in the eyes of the world – and in the pages of secular history – she and her husband could not have been more ordinary.
In a few days’ time we’ll see the star, the angels, the shepherds, the Wise Men. The locals will begin to wonder what’s happening. But here, before the birth, this is just another displaced family, far from home, staring at the “No vacancy” signs.
God took a risk on Mary and Joseph. That’s what this scene is about: the precariousness of everything. In God’s providential plan, of course, and with hindsight, it was absolutely assured. But in the unfolding of human history, it felt like it was touch and go.
It’s the same risk he took at the Annunciation, which is the Gospel reading on the last Sunday of Advent.
Why did he risk so much on a young woman’s Yes? Why would he put so much into the hands of a frail human being? One traditional answer is that this is part of a divine courtesy, a divine politeness. It was fitting that God would ask us before he came. He could have broken into our world in a hundred different ways – overwhelming us, taking us by surprise. But he chose to ask us first. He wanted us to let him in, instead of just letting himself in.
Another answer is that he could not come before we were ready to accept him. We often hear how the people of Israel, and indeed the whole human race, were waiting for a Saviour – looking, wondering, longing. And it’s true. But in another way we could say that God was waiting to send the Saviour.
For century after century, God the Father was looking and wondering – longing to send his Son. It’s as if the human race was asking, “When will you send him?”, and the Father was replying, “When will you be ready to welcome him?” And there is a kind of respectful standoff, both sides waiting impatiently, neither side able to go any further without the other.
And into this situation steps Mary. Here, for the first time since the Garden of Eden, is someone with a pure heart, who is completely open to God and to others. At last, someone can say Yes without reservation. And at last, God can send his angel.
At the Annunciation, Mary stands before God on behalf of the whole of humanity. It’s as if the whole human race is standing behind her, listening in, hoping that she will give the answer no one else has been able to offer. We wait in silence; the angels hold their breath. Never has so much hung on a single choice. It’s as if time is suspended and history stilled. And when she answers with her Yes, she allows the work of our salvation to be fulfilled.
Christ came because she welcomed him – it’s as simple as that. That’s the link between the Annunciation and Advent. Everything Jesus will do for us depends on what Mary has done for us. There would be no feast of Christmas or Easter or Pentecost without the feast of the Annunciation – without Mary’s willingness to bear the Saviour.
Christ alone has saved us, yet in his wisdom and kindness God decided that the coming of the Saviour should depend on Mary. We waited on her Yes. God himself waited on her Yes. His faithfulness needed hers. And when they met, then the Word become flesh and dwelt among us.
Fr Stephen Wang is a priest of the Archdiocese of Westminster
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