Readings: Isaiah 52:7–10; Psalm 97(98):1–6; Hebrews 1:1–6; John 1:1–18
25 December 2020
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” – Isaiah 9:1
In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah announces the coming of the Messiah. Foreseeing the birth of Christ, the prophet says of the those living at that time, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
Sometimes other people keep us in the dark for their own purposes. But we can keep ourselves in the dark, too, because we cannot face our sins and weaknesses. We do not want to see what we are. We shut our eyes against the light that reveals us to ourselves because that light seems so threatening.
When Christ is born, a great light is shined in our darkness because God is in our midst now. The King has come. His dominion is vast; he is Father forever. And so, as Malachi says, “Who can abide the day of his coming?” (Ml 3:2). Who wants to be in this light?
And maybe that is why the Messiah comes to us through human birth, as a newborn baby. When he comes, he is tiny, fragile, weak. Needy and hungry, he suckles at the breast of his mother. The great Judge of all the earth comes to the creatures who are subject to him as a baby, helpless, powerless. How much harsh judgment, superior condemnation, unbending rejection is there in a baby?
Our fear of the light is defeated here. We do not have to figure out how to abide the day of his coming. We can surrender to it with gratitude and joy. The baby invites us. The light of his love welcomes us.
Thank you, Lord, that you are our lamp; you turn our darkness into light in the face of your Son, Jesus Christ. Continue to clothe each of us with your light of love. Amen.
Dr Eleonore Stump
The Adoration of the Shepherds – Charles Le Brun (1619–1690)
“The Adoration of the Shepherds”, c. 1689. Oil on canvas, 151 x 213 cm. Musee du Louvre, Paris France. Public Domain.
Born in Paris in 1619, Charles Le Brun was to become one of France’s most renowned Baroque painters. Le Brun believed that art should appeal to the intellect instead of merely attracting the eye. This is obvious in The Adoration of the Shepherds, part of the series focusing on the life of Christ, commissioned by Louis XIV. It now hangs in the Louvre.
Le Brun’s incredible talent was noticed when he was only 11 years old. For some time, he studied in Rome where he worked under Nicolas Poussin (we met him in Week Two.) At the age of 15, he was already receiving commissions from Cardinal Richelieu. He went on to become court painter for Louis XIV who referred to him as “the greatest French artist of all time”.
Le Brun was the driving force behind the establishment of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1648, becoming one of its first directors. He would later found the Academy of France in Rome in 1666. In 1660, he had established the Gobelins which, at first, was a great school for the manufacture not only of tapestries, but every class of furniture required in the Royal Palace. In fact, LeBron can be considered the originator of the Louis XIV style, popular still today.
In 1669, Louis XIV decided to completely renovate Versailles, which was then a tiny palace, and transform it into an opulent dwelling where he would meet with his subjects and foreign diplomats. Le Brun was in charge of the decoration.
Le Brun died in Paris in 1690. Due to his close connection with Louis XIV, Le Brun’s reputation suffered in the years following the French Revolution. It was only in 1963, when a major Le Brun exhibition was organised at Versailles, that his work was re-evaluated. He is now considered one of the finest and most versatile French artists of his time.
The fundamental platform on which Le Brun based his art was unquestionably to make his paintings speak. The use of symbols, costumes, colours, and gestures gave his works a particular depth. Look at The Adoration of the Shepherds—a scene crammed with figures, one which joins heaven to earth. But it is not only the shepherds who are adoring. Heaven has been torn apart and angels are celebrating the wonder of this birth. The angel in the top right corner is actually pointing to the Child with one hand, and to the heavenly choir with the other. And angels crown the Holy Family with a silken banner. It was once common to cover the altar in the sanctuary with a baldacchino (canopy) to emphasise the sacred action that takes place in the Mass. The Church imitates Mary in bringing Christ to birth each day in the divine liturgy.
And Mary is portrayed in the act of adoration, for her eyes are not on the Child, but are turned to heaven. Her hand clutches her heart as if she is reciting her Magnificat: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour…. The almighty works marvels for me. Holy is his name” (Lk 1:46–49). Joseph stands behind, always a protective presence.
It could be concluded that the crib is bathed in heavenly light, but on closer examination, the Child seems to emanate the light himself. He would later say, “I am the light of the world” (Jn 8:12). And his light seems to fall on almost every figure—the shepherd who has prostrated himself, the woman behind him with her baby and carrying a basket of “goodies” for the new family. Notice there are two more mothers with their babies—one in the left foreground, and one on the extreme left in the cattle stall. Le Brun seems to be exalting motherhood itself. Overall, the faces of every character are filled with awe, as ours should be whenever we contemplate this divine mystery.
For one of his Christmas homilies, Pope Benedict XVI mused: “In the Grotto of Bethlehem God shows himself to us as a humble ‘infant’ to defeat our arrogance. Perhaps we would have submitted more easily to power and wisdom, but he does not want us to submit; rather, he appeals to our hearts and to our free decision to accept his love” (General Audience, 17 December 2008).
Monsignor Graham Schmitzer
Professor Eleonore Stump is the Robert J. Henle Professor of Philosophy at Saint Louis University. She is honorary professor at Wuhan University and at the Logos Institute, St Andrews, and a professorial fellow at Australian Catholic University. She has published extensively in philosophy of religion, contemporary metaphysics, and medieval philosophy. Her books include Aquinas (2003), Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (2010), and Atonement (2018). She has given the Gifford Lectures (Aberdeen, 2003), the Wilde lectures (Oxford, 2006), the Stewart lectures (Princeton, 2009), and the Stanton lectures (Cambridge, 2018). She is past president of the Society of Christian Philosophers, the American Catholic Philosophical Association, and the American Philosophical Association, Central Division; and she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Monsignor Graham Schmitzer recently retired as the parish priest at Immaculate Conception Parish in Unanderra, NSW. He was ordained in 1969 and has served in many parishes in the Diocese of Wollongong. He was also chancellor and secretary to Bishop William Murray for 13 years. He grew up in Port Macquarie and was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph of Lochinvar. For two years, he worked for the Department of Attorney General and Justice before entering St Columba’s College, Springwood, in 1962. Fr Graham loves travelling and has visited many of the major art galleries in Europe.