A friend in graduate school collected pictures of the Annunciation. He found interesting the different ways various artists over time, especially in the Middle Ages, depicted the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she was to bear a son. Invariably, the paintings portray Mary as kneeling in prayer as Gabriel enters the room. Her head is turned to the right as she acknowledges his presence. The pictures are rife with Christian symbolism. A dove flies towards Mary, some artists going so far as to show it hovering near her womb; the Holy Spirit entering into union with her. The rays of blessing which radiate from Gabriel’s hand often contain a cross. Occasionally, through the window facing Mary one sees Golgatha; conception and death encompassed in the same scene. Interestingly, some of the later painters also painted Joseph into the scene, showing him occupied in his carpentry shop.
My friend was interested in the beginning. For some perverse reason, I am more interested in the ending. As with the Annunciation, the Crucifixion is depicted in various ways. It is not so much the paintings that interest me, but the crucifixes themselves. Dominating most cathedrals, they are suspended over the main altar or adorn one of the side altars, depicting Christ in various states of agony. Some are quite graphic in their violence, showing a body contorted in pain. One, in a small church along the Rhine, exaggerated the size of the nails, showing them as large spikes extending from the hands and feet as a Dali-esque Christ contorts in agony. Others show a Christ resigned to his fate and showing more annoyance than pain. But my favorite, over a side altar in the cathedral in Cologne and dating to the 10th century, shows a Christ in death. The face is relaxed, at peace. No crown of thorns adorns his brow and the wound in his side is inconspicuous under his right arm. This is a scene that has risen above violence. The crown of thorns was added to crucifixes later in the Middle Ages and the wound from the spear moved to a more prominent position towards the front of the chest. I have even seen the spear wound mistakenly placed on the left side, as if the soldier were aiming for the heart. The crown of thorns and the spear wound became features of the crucifixion in order to emphasize the pain of the event to the viewer. Of the two, only the spear wound is attested to; there is no evidence that Christ wore his crown of thorns on the cross.
Christmas is the reason for these musings. The secular imagery of Christmas appears earlier every year with some sightings now occurring as early as August. I anticipate a time when advertising for Christmas never ends as it becomes the holiday for all seasons. There was a time when Christmas decorations did not appear in the stores until after Thanksgiving. The stores were magically transformed overnight and we gave little thought to those who had to forego Thanksgiving in order to make that happen. Of course, in the mid-50s, Christmas was not the marketing bonanza that it is today.
The imagery of Christmas contains very little of the religious anymore. Most of today’ s imagery centers around buying and getting. We give in order to get. The embarrassing spectacle of people rushing stores in the early morning hours on the day after Thanksgiving, appropriately dubbed “Black Friday,” gives testimony to what Christmas
has become. There will be some mention of the birth in Bethlehem but one will have to look hard to find a creche in a public area. Increasingly, we hear Christmas trees referred to as holiday trees; Christmas presents as holiday presents. Holiday trees, holiday presents? Christmas has become a holiday without a reason. Occasionally one sees a button which reads “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but these are hardly noticed. Outside of churches, the story of Christmas is rarely told. Even in churches there is some hand wringing about what really happened; was there really a star, were there wise men? C. S. Lewis once explained that Christianity was a miracle religion. If you discount one miracle, you discount them all. The Christmas miracle he was referring to was the incarnation, the central happening in the Christian story. Without it, everything else is irrelevant. In a sense, the shepherds, the star, the wise men are the myth which support a central reality, bringing the incarnation down to an understandable level.
Unfortunately, modern Christmas ignores the reality, preferring the myth.