Wednesday, December 16, 2015

If God Dwelt Among Us…

What would the divine look like?

Last weekend I attended a tour of sacred art at the Birmingham Museum of Art. The tour was led by docent Joyce Bennington and sponsored by Grace Episcopal Church in Woodlawn. Ms. Bennington talked about symbolism and Christian iconography in art with the overall theme for Advent being the two natures of Christ (human and divine). She also explained how artists developed new techniques in painting over the years. It was wonderful mix of art appreciation along with an examination of faith expressions. The event is an annual Advent tradition at Grace Church. 

Madonna with Christ Child and Two Saints
Birmingham Museum of Art

Adoration of the Magi
Birmingham Museum of Art

Madonna and Christ Child with Infant Saint John the Baptist and Three Angels
Birmingham Museum of Art

Painting Jesus

As fate would have it, the day before the outing at the Museum of Art, a friend had commented on the historical inaccuracy of devotional paintings that depicted Jesus and the Holy Family as European in appearance, when in fact Jesus had been born into a culture that “never saw any white people, except for the occasional Roman soldier.” My friend’s comment led me to contemplate upon what it means to depict Christ in art.

While it is true that Jesus was not “white,” there is something to be said for adapting Christ to one’s own culture and identity. The Medieval and Renaissance artists took this even further than most would dare to do today in that they not only portrayed Christ and other biblical characters as European, but also presented them in contemporary clothing. Would we recognize Joseph in Levi's, or Mary in a Sag Harbor outfit?

Since the concept of Christ is that Jesus is the incarnational presence of God among us, it would be natural to make him look like one of us. It is appropriate for African Christians to depict him as African, Asian Christians to paint him as Asian, and Latino Christians to see him as Hispanic. 

Song of the Angels

Black Madonna and Child

Guadalupe with Child

Chinese Jesus

When I lived in Hong Kong, one of my favorite places to visit was the Tao Fong Shan Christian Centre. It had been established as a Chinese Christian monastery that looked like, and was organized like a Buddhist monastery. In the early years, prior to the border closing by the Chinese government in 1949, Buddhist pilgrims would follow the custom of traveling to other monasteries, and Tao Fong Shan was one that was they visited for interfaith dialogue.  

One of the things that the monastery does to support itself is to make porcelain plates with images from the life of Christ, portrayed in Chinese fashion. One of the images is a lovely Oriental rendition of the Nativity.

Jesus Born in a Manger

Seeing God with Us

"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
                                     ~ John 1:14

Since art is the symbolic expression of how we see the world, and the Gospel story is that in Christ God took on human flesh, why not let art show that the humanity which Christ took upon himself looked like us? Of course, it becomes a problem when a Caucasian sees Jesus as exclusively "historically white," as one Fox News anchor did a couple of years ago. If, however, we are to incorporate Jesus into our way of life, it is appropriate for our art to reflect that incarnational aspect.

Moreover, if Christ is to be “Emmanuel, which means God with us,” (Matthew 1:23), then symbolically it is appropriate to portray him "in our own likeness" in our works of art. Such art can serve as an example of the embodiment of the divine nature abiding with us.  We understand that Jesus was a brown-skinned (or perhaps olive-skinned) Semitic person born in the Middle East, yet we can also let our creative arts declare that he was like us.  

The Christ Child symbolizes the divine shining forth in our human experience. He is the sure sign that God is not removed from us, but has made his/her dwelling among us. Some translate John 1:14 as "God pitched his tent among us." The divine can then become realized as intrinsic to our world and woven into our experience.

Art is perhaps at its best when it can show us the beauty of the divine that is indeed dwelling in our midst. Whether or not you can relate to any of the particular works of art depicted here, the important thing during this season of Advent is to get some sense of the wonder and the hope of  "God with us." 




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