Grace Episcopal Church
December 24, 2009
This Advent, I’ve been blessed by a series of encounters with great art. A group of us were treated to a tour of the Chazen led by parishioner and curator Maria Dale. The tour introduced me to several spectacular images of the Virgin Mary that continue to fascinate me. The next week, Corrie and I spent a day in the Art Institute of Chicago, and much of that time was spent in front of a Caravaggio on loan from England. Then on Sunday the 13th, Tom Dale, Professor of Art History here at the university, gave us a whirlwind survey of images of the Virgin Mary.
Among those images was one that has haunted me ever since. It’s another Caravaggio, this time the Madonna of the Loreto. It’s the image on the service bulletin tonight and was painted by the great, and controversial Italian painter on commission for a chapel in San Agostino in Rome’s Piazza Navona. When it was unveiled, there was considerable controversy. Mary is barefoot and looks like a very ordinary woman, with only the faintest hint of halo to distinguish her from the other people in the picture. Even more scandalous, the dramatic focus of the painting seems to be the dirty feet of the man who is kneeling in homage to her.
A black and white reproduction of that painting is on the cover of tonight’s service bulletin. It’s probably difficult to make out details in the image, but I think you’ll agree that the peasant’s feet seem to be the center of attention. And it was those feet, crusted in dirt, as well as the fact that the Virgin herself is barefoot, that led to the public’s derision of it.
The peasant’s muddy feet. I have no idea why Caravaggio painted this image in the way he did. What little I do know about him leads me to think he was a something of a seventeenth-century equivalent of those contemporary artists who seem most interested in shocking the public. But I think most scholars agree that whatever his motives, and in spite of his scandalous life, Caravaggio was also a man of faith, who sought to express that faith through his life.
The peasant’s muddy feet. His public rejected the image because it did not conform to their ideas of beauty and what was appropriate for the chapel in which the image was to hang. It offended their artistic and religious sensibilities. I doubt any of you would even notice the dirty feet if you were looking at this image where it now hangs. You wouldn’t notice those muddy feet unless your attention were drawn to them by a guide or art historian, and even then, you probably wouldn’t think there was much wrong with the picture. It’s a beautiful painting, masterfully done, in a style we all associate with religious art, with high art.
Now I know that some of you may have muddy boots having braved tonight’s weather to come here, but I suspect most of you are dressed a little better than usual. It’s Christmas Eve after all, a time to celebrate, and most of us want to do things that will make Christmas seem a little different than any other day—Why else would you have come to church tonight? Christmas is out of the ordinary, and we want to mark that in all kinds of ways, with festive dress, great food and wine, and the like.
As part of that celebration, but only part, we have gathered here. Some of us for the first time, many of us returning here from the places we now live, and others who come here most Sundays. We come to connect with our past. We come also to connect with our faith, or to reconnect, or perhaps, we come even in search of or grasping for faith. All of those reasons, and many others have brought us here.
We come here, tonight, in the midst of an uncertain and changing world, looking for stability, and certainty. We yearn for the old familiar ways. We want to be reassured that in spite of everything going on in our lives and in our world, for a few minutes at least, for an hour or so, we can push away all of our doubts and fears, our pain and suffering, and relish once again, the lessons and carols that we have heard so many times before. We are here to celebrate again the birth of Jesus Christ.
We come out of duty, out of habit, and out of hope. Like the shepherds, we come hoping that we will encounter Jesus Christ, the savior of the world, in word and sacrament. But in spite of that hope, we probably do not expect to be transformed as the shepherds were, as Joseph and Mary were. Our expectations may be low, if only because it’s all so familiar to us.
This aura of familiarity surrounds the great mystery of our faith—that God has become human, that 2000 years ago, in a crude manger in a stable for animals, God became incarnate in a tiny baby. That great mystery is so incomprehensible, so beyond our grasp, that over the centuries we have done everything in our power to protect ourselves from its explosive power.
In the twenty-first century, it has come to this. We celebrate Christmas with blow-up Santas in our front yards, with nativity scenes that include Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer and Frosty the Snowman alongside the shepherds and magi. We celebrate the birth of Christ in an orgy of consumerism and then pause this evening, to acknowledge for a few minutes what we ought to be celebrating this season.
We want to bundle our celebration of Christmas in a package of sweet consumeristic nostalgia. We want to worship the Christ child, but we want to do so on our terms—to approach the manger with eyes veiled and ears closed. We surround ourselves with kitsch and extravagance to shield us from the simple, wonderful power of this story.
We come to hear the old familiar story and sing the familiar carols. We come full of nostalgia and perhaps hope. And many of us, all of us come with dark places in our lives—with concerns, doubts, fears. We come with muddy feet, if you will, muddy feet that we hope no one else will notice and that we try to forget.
In fact, Christmas is muddy and messy. It’s supposed to be. Luke tells a story that is about God becoming human, God becoming one of us, God taking on flesh that is just like ours, a body like ours with all of its messiness. Because we all know, bodies are messy.
I’m reminded again and again when I talk with people about how hard it is for us to accept the doctrine of the Incarnation—that God became flesh, that Jesus is the Son of God. There’s something about it that tends to bother us. Many of us get caught up in the biology of it, or in the difficulty of believing that the divine can become concrete in such a way. It seems like Luke’s story is written in such a way as to offend modern sensibilities. If we ask the obvious questions, our faith might shatter, so we push them away and remain content with the story.
Jesus came among us, not as a ruler but as a baby. He came to a poor peasant woman of Galilee and a poor carpenter, a couple that was engaged, not married. The shepherds who heard the angels’ message were of even lower status. They came from the fields, just as they were, muddy feet, tattered clothes, and all.
They came to worship, as we do. And that’s our mistake. We want to understand, categorize, make sense of the story. But when we do so we lose sight of the mystery of it—the mystery and wonder of God becoming flesh and living among us. That great mystery cannot be comprehended, and yes, our only response should be to worship.
And that is why this story, this night cannot be contained by our feeble attempts to celebrate it. We cannot hope to understand the incarnation. We cannot grasp what God becoming flesh might mean. But it is not ours to accept or reject. It is ours to ponder and treasure, to puzzle over for our whole lives. How might we respond to the love of God that we meet here, in this place, on Christmas? It is a love that accepts us whoever we are, however we are, wherever we are, muddy feet and all.
Let us put aside all of the trappings and the trimmings, the decorations, the kitsch, the extravagance, and like Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, encounter Christ Jesus as a babe in a manger. Let us open our hearts to ponder this mystery, of God become flesh. Let us also, as we approach the altar encounter the love of Christ, encounter Christ himself in the bread and wine of the Eucharistic feast.
May his love enter our hearts, transforming us, so that we might show forth the love of Jesus Christ in all that we do, this day, and forever more. Amen.