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The Christmas Story: As seen through the eyes of artist, Albrecht Durer, and we ourselves.

During the late fall and early winter, Christians around the world prepare to tell the story of Christmas. Throughout the world they gather for the reenactment of this holy drama. I am sure that many of you have taken the dusty boxes from the closet and carefully unwrapped those ornaments and other Christmas treasures. Think how many different shapes and forms the nativity scene can take. In different years I have seen the holy family carved in ivory; I have seen simple clay figures cast in rubber molds painted by a child; I have seen the Christmas pageant acted out to the thunder of rock music; I have seen Mary and Joseph played by people so poor they could not afford the clothing on their backs; and I have seen the lavish productions of Radio City Music Hall, where the characters pass before your eyes in grand array.

Consider the variety of Christmas scenes you have witnessed. You can probably mark the turning points in your own life as you call back the memory of Christmas past. But did you ever stop to think how much of ourselves we put into Christmas? The very manner of our celebration reveals who and what we are. Our own values, our beliefs, our prejudices, are on display at Christmas.

In the box to your left you'll see a woodcut of the Holy family by the German artist, Albrecht Durer whose self portrait appears at the top of this page. This wood cut was completed at the beginning of the 16th century. You will notice at once that this scene tells us much more about the manners and customs of the artist's time than about the events of the first century in Bethlehem.

Notice that the characters in this woodcut are dressed in the clothing and costume of the sixteenth century; the architecture and landscape reflect the artists own surroundings in medieval Europe. This woodcut was rendered at the very beginning of the Protestant Reformation, a time of tremendous upheaval and change. If you look closely enough you can find evidence of one culture dying and another coming to life. Look at those delightful cherubs at the top of the picture. There is no question about the reality of these medieval creatures; they are every bit as real as the rabbits dancing at Mary's feet. The people of the middle ages believed that the whole world was full of these supernatural beings, some of them were very good like these cherubs, and some were evil, like the fallen angels and demons and of course the devil, in full regalia with horns and peaked tail and breathing fire!

In fact, the authority of the medieval church rested upon this fear of the supernatural, for it was the church alone which was believed to possess the keys to the kingdom of heaven. So our picture looks back to the middle ages, but it also foreshadows the future. The seeds of change can be seen upon the innocent faces of those rabbits. Notice the twins at the lower right. One seems to be tapping his brother over the shoulder: "Hey, there, brother rabbit, look at all those people out there looking at us!" Durer's drawings of the animals are among the best in the history of art. (See the larger, more finely rendered hare, below.) And this represents something radical and new. In the middle ages, most religious art was symbolic. Each character was drawn in conventional form to represent some specific dogma. But in this picture things are beginning to change.

Durer was fascinated by the animals themselves: cows, dogs, rabbits, birds, his art encompasses the whole animal kingdom. He drew the buildings in the background, the grass and flowers and trees in faithful detail. He looked out at the real world and his hand rendered what the eye saw, irrespective of religious convention. Durer also painted human characters with the same realism. These are not just symbolic figures, they are individuals with a life all their own. Durer painted a world which could not be contained by the doctrines or platitudes of the Roman Church. In a real sense his humble rabbits are the harbingers of a new age. In the same way and for the same reason, Durer has the baby Jesus reading a Bible. The artist was very well aware that there were no Bibles in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. But Durer was painting only a few years after the invention of the printing press. The Bible had been recently translated into German. For the first time individual Christians had access to the Scriptures; now the individual believer could interpret the meaning of God's word. The Bible, sitting so innocently on Mary's lap, signals the end of one age and the beginning of another just as certainly as today's computer marks the transition from the age of print to the information age.

So the artist captures in still life the excitement and action of the day. But he also tells us something that is timeless. The world of the late middle ages was a terrifying and dangerous place, full of violence, pestilence and death. It was much like Bosnia in recent history, where rape, pillage and the slaughter of innocent children are daily occurrences. But in the face of these realities, look what you find in this picture. A world of harmony and peace. The rabbits dance playfully at Mary's feet; the birds wing across a clear blue sky; a boat glides peacefully across the placid lake. Even the grass and flowers which caress the main characters emphasize the deeper meaning of Christmas: Christ is the one who brings peace to the world. As Durer tells it, the peace of Christ is not just a state of mind, the peace of Christ is reflected in the natural surroundings of the real world. Even the little boat gliding across the peaceful lake is a signal of God's grace. This work of art is successful because it reflects the real world of the artist, but also because it breaks through to a deeper level, and it speaks of eternal things.

As we tell the Christmas story, as we celebrate Christmas in our homes and churches, we reveal a great deal about ourselves, our beliefs and the tenor of our own times, but hopefully we too break through to a deeper level.

Imagine, if you can, trying to compose a contemporary portrait of the holy family. Imagine that you are the artist and like Durer, you want to capture the timeless message of Christmas in a form that is suited to this day.

I would imagine first of all that the cherubs would probably be absent from a contemporary portrait of the holy family. We have banished these winged creatures from the heavens. Very few people today believe in angels and archangels. Fewer still would accept the reality of the devil. It seems comic to us that theologians once debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. We're interested primarily in things that we can see and feel, taste and smell. And since there is no scientific evidence for the cherubs, we assume they don't exist. Many people carry this line of reasoning to the very existence of God. Since we have no proof of God's existence, God may also be banished from the heavens. And so there probably would be no cherubs in a contemporary portrait of Christmas.

But on the other hand, we might very well find a star. According to Matthew, there was a star rising in the east at the time of Christ's birth. Whether or not such a star could have led the magi to Jerusalem and then to the stable where Christ was born, we do not know. But many of those who today study the stars are profoundly moved by the wonder of creation. Whenever I stand alone under the glory of a starry sky, there's a part of me that follows yonder stars to the very same God who made the heavens and the earth. In this age of astronauts and space explorers, the star is very much a part of any Christmas story for it reminds us that the wonder of God and the wonder of creation are of a kind. And then there are the animals. In the woodcut, our friends, the rabbits, run and play at Mary's feet. In our cool sophistication we know that rabbits don't actually dance like that. It was said in the legends of medieval Europe that the animals in the manger were the first to recognize Jesus as the Christ. The donkeys and the cows in that stable were so taken by his birth that their praise rang out in a human tongue.

Now, of course, we look upon these stories as entirely legendary. We know, don't we, that the animals are inferior creatures, that they could not possibly have been aware what was really happening that night of nights. And yet, we are beginning to have second thoughts about our brothers and sisters in the animal kingdom. Perhaps the animals of Christmas knew something that we have long forgotten. Perhaps the animals remind us that we cannot live by the mind alone. We cannot celebrate without listening to the language of the heart. Like the animals of Christmas we too have instincts, intuition and feeling. More and more we are learning to trust our emotions. And so perhaps, just perhaps, we shall hear the animals talking this Christmas and our ears will be opened to the deeper meaning of this most holy night. So Albrecht Durer's rabbits, and other such creatures, would be very much a part of our contemporary Christmas story.

Next we look to Mary. In the middle ages Mary was placed upon a pedestal and revered as the Mother of God. Today, contemporary theologians emphasize instead the feminine qualities of God. And everywhere people are reexamining the role of women in human society. We are interested in the contributions which women are making in many new areas. So Mary would play a central part in a contemporary portrayal of Christmas. We would identify with a Mary who saw her son beginning to act in strange new ways. She must have been bewildered, even frightened by his dangerous words and deeds. She saw him caught up in a cause which she could not understand. She was afraid of what might happen, but she stayed with him, and supported him in his new way of thinking. She gave herself without reservation; she poured out her love without condition. Today we would not portray Mary as the mother of God, but we would place her again at center stage, because her capacity for love is needed now more than ever.

And last we come to Jesus. The Christ child is portrayed by Durer as a remarkable precocious boy, capable of reading the entire Bible even during the first few weeks of his life. Today we would doubt that Jesus was born with such superhuman abilities. We have a deeper appreciation for the biological and psychological factors involved in the development of the brain. Since Jesus was really human, he must have struggled through the same problems of growth which we experience. He was born not with perfect knowledge; he acquired knowledge the hard way, the human way. In the language of St. Paul, "he learned obedience through suffering." As we look at Jesus through the eyes of the 20th century, we see a tremendously complicated man, a man of depth and power, who fed upon the deepest resources of the Spirit.

In the medieval conception Christ is presented in royal terms. He is literally the Prince of Peace, he is the King of Kings, and at last he is exalted in the heavens, where he sits upon a throne at the right hand of God. Today I think we would emphasize a different dimension. We would portray him in terms suited to the democratic spirit of this age. We see him walking with the people rather than ruling over them. We see a human being who understands the deep mysteries of the heart. We see a man who shared our anxieties, our pain and our joy. Today we are not so impressed by images of imperial power, for we have seen too many rulers corrupted by their power. In a contemporary version of the story, Jesus would be portrayed as a real baby, a human baby who cried in the night. He was a child who needed to be cuddled and cared for and love like everyone of us.

As we study the characters of Christmas we see them changing before our very eyes, and may it always be so. May Christmas always be a time of surprise, a time of discovery, a time of joy. A time for something strange and new. For as we grow, as we reach out and discover new things, our images of God are also changing, growing, broadening, deepening. May Christmas always be a time of discovery, and a time of Joy. For as Mary and Joseph found that first Christmas ever, the troubles of this hour are the birth pains of a new day. Amen.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.