Christmas Story: As seen through the eyes of artist, Albrecht Durer, and we ourselves.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.