Text for the Month
My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people.
Luke 2. 30-31
In all forms of visual art, there is surely no theme of Christian content so manifold present as the manger and the cross. As a variant of what is already presented, I created a card for Christmas with the use of pressed spring flowers and leaves of daffodils, tulips and pansies and made use of the rich symbolism that has emerged over the centuries.
When I had to write an exposition on Psalm 63.7 earlier in the year, the theme made such an impression on me, that I aimed to include the image from the Psalm in the design. And if no-one has used the thought of God's protecting wings in a visual form before, I consider a picture of the incarnation of the Son of God in Bethlehem, so near Jerusalem, a centre of human power, but in anonymity, so characteristic in poverty, a welcome opportunity. Therefore, here first a few words regarding the chosen theme. The sentence 'In the shadow of your wings' entails a strong spiritual picture of the omnipotence of God and his eternal love for us, the wayward humanity.
"Shadow" is a Hebrew image for the protection against oppression, and "wings", specifically for the protective outreach of God's power. The Psalms as a whole are the unique Prayer Book of the Bible, described as prayers from God to us and from us to God. It is therefore not surprising that the metaphor in the shadow of your wings can be found several times in the Psalms and nowhere else in the Bible. Much could be said of the importance of the psalms in the ecumenical context.
No other theme in visual art has such a rich symbolic content as can be found in the depiction of the Nativity, from very early Christianity to a high point in the Middle Ages. In addition, there is the iconic treasure of the Orthodox Churches. And there are the notable universal, ancient perceptions, taken over by Christianity. This is especially true for the 8-rayed star that I placed in the centre between the wings and above the dilapidated stable, hinted at in just a few lines. It is the star of Bethlehem, the Christmas star, here placed in a circle or disk, to underline God's presence. Depicted in this way, the rays represent the seal of God. Already in pre-Christian times, the number 8 was recognised as holy and has in all religions and cultures special meaning as symbol of ultimate perfection. Here is not the space to explain this further. But I would like to point out that the octagon can be found in the design of old baptismal fonts and in the architecture of church towers.
When I read that in the depiction of the Nativity it is easier to omit Mary and Joseph than the ox and the donkey, although the latter are not mentioned in the Gospels, I looked a bit closer into this inference. Well known is the statement in Isaiah 1.3: The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner's manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand. But it is also cited in the Psalm of the prophet Habakkuk: Thou shalt be known between two living creatures. This text can not be found in our Bibles. It comes from early Greek manuscripts, difficult to find in its various sources. Nevertheless, the quote is significant, because it surely
influenced the oldest known depictions of the birth of Jesus. Already around 400 AD, the child in a manger is alone depicted between ox and ass on a lid of a sarcophagus in Milan and a marble relief in Athens. Other examples followed in later centuries.
In my picture, the colours, the light in the night, the shepherd's staff held by Joseph, the broken fence and the hanging end of the swaddling cloth, all have there own story to tell. So, in various ways the card theme reflects what we sing in hymns and carols: God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son (John 3.16). We go into a new year and are encouraged in the guiding text for 2024 to respond to the love of God: Do everything in love (1 Corinthians 16.14).