I spent an hour on Google Images looking for a picture we could use on our chaplaincy Christmas card. Don’t worry: they have an advanced search option that allows you to find pictures that are in the public domain, so you can do this without compromising any copyright laws.
My favourite painting, which we didn’t use, was The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel the Younger, a copy of the better known work by his father. There is so much detail: a snowball fight; an animal being butchered; workmen building the timber frame of a new barn; children playing on the frozen river. It’s like one of those What Do People Do All Day? books by Richard Scarry, minus the educational captions.
On the left, dozens of people are crowded around the entrance to the village inn, desperate for warmth and lodging. At the bottom, the Virgin Mary sits on a donkey, cold and weary. St Joseph, with a carpenter’s saw over his shoulder for identification purposes, motions towards the back of the queue. His body language betrays a sense of relief and excitement that they have finally arrived. But you can imagine a thought bubble emerging above his head with the words: “Blimey! This isn’t looking good. We’ve come too late. What am I going to do? What’s she going to say?”
Why did I end up selecting a more traditional Christmas image instead: The Nativity, by an unknown Austrian master (active around 1400) from the Belvedere palace in Vienna? Why didn’t I choose that powerful Flemish scene? Because I was afraid that people wouldn’t spot the Holy Family. They are marginal figures in a magnificent crowdscape. They are not the dramatic centre of this winter scene. They are at the back of the queue.
Bruegel had the artistic courage to preserve their obscurity and keep them on the periphery. This is an Advent truth that I was too timid to embrace. God chose an extraordinary woman to be the mother of his Son, but in the eyes of the world – and in the pages of secular history – she and her husband could not have been more ordinary.
In a few days’ time we’ll see the star, the angels, the shepherds, the Wise Men. The locals will begin to wonder what’s happening. But here, before the birth, this is just another displaced family, far from home, staring at the “No vacancy” signs.
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