By Haddon Willmer.
At the art class I go to each week, we were given Christmas as a theme for our next attempt. I dislike tinsel, though like most people I get entangled in it every year. It comes in many kinds and it seems churlish to do a Scrooge on it, saying ‘Humbug’.
But how to paint a picture doing justice to Christmas as told in the Gospels? This is daunting if one is not a skilled painter; and even more daunting when one is a mere human being, twenty-first century style.
But the choice seemed to me, either to try, even if it turned out a failure, or to keep clear altogether, and paint another summer landscape, where the sunshine in unambiguous.
My try was derived from the drawing on the left which I made years ago for a Christmas card:
But since then, I have written a whole-congregation nativity play based closely on the text of Matthew, leaving nothing out, including the genealogy and, controversially as it turned out, Herod the killer, and even more shockingly, Rachel, the mother who would not be comforted. The shock was rendered powerfully by some mothers in the church. And now, in the era of IS-Daesh and our responses which are too near to being Tit for Tat, it is impossible, it seems to me, to tell the Christmas story and leave out the dark side, the murderous ambiguity of Herod.
The message of the angels, Glory to God and peace on earth, must indeed be sounded in the picture, for it is joy to the world. But the frustration of the message in the world cannot be denied. On the nether side of Herod’s sword, there is death for the little ones, while on the other side, in the light from heaven, there is the Saviour born in a manger, all set for his flight into Egypt and his eventual deathly collision with the powers of the world who had taken over from Herod.
The Christmas story does not take us out of the real world. The picture tries to set up a blunt collision between the grace of God in the coming of Jesus the Saviour and the rule of Herod, the dark and the light.
So this is what I have painted, in my rough way:Besides this, I wanted to trace the journey of the Wise Men, from their seeing the star, to their meeting with Herod in Jerusalem, their finding the Baby King and giving him what they had to give, and then returning to their own country, ‘by another way’. Tracing the line of the journey helps to give the painting a more interesting structure than a mere dark-light confrontation would achieve. But as I have been doing it, I have thought about the Wise Men. Customarily they are portrayed as wise because they came to Jesus and, from that point, we extrapolate positive outcomes for them. Naturally then, many are mystified by the gloomy downbeat way T.S.Eliot ends his poem, ‘The Journey of the Magi’ (http://allpoetry.com/The-Journey-Of-The-Magi ). I wouldn’t put it quite as he did, perhaps because my thinking is so much in Herod’s shadow. The Wise Men saw what they came to see, and then could do nothing but return to their own country by another way. They could do nothing about Herod. They could not take the good news back to Jerusalem and persuade the scribes to sing ‘Joy to the world’ with them. They fled for their lives. Their trajectory ends in weakness and frustration. Is that a parable for how we are in the world, a parable too uncomfortable to be entertained?
One last thing. The light of the glory from heaven fades out in Herod’s darkness, but all the same it is a dynamic pressure, like rays streaming from the sun, driving on to the last spark. I haven’t shown that well though I have tried it. And Herod’s terrible sword is deliberately drawn so that Rachel is mostly on the dark side – understandably – but not entirely: her back is in the light, the mercy from on high is upon her, although she in her darkness does not, cannot know it.
The Christmas story is full of hard sad challenging mysteries. Why do we celebrate it with such superficial frivolity?