Thursday evening Breathing Space Communion services for Advent
The Adorationof the Shepherds
If you were here last week you’ll know that during these three Advent Breathing Space services we are looking at some of the classic ways in which the Nativity story has been portrayed in art over the years. Last week we thought about those paintings which show the new-born Jesus lying naked on the ground, rather an uncomfortable image to modern eyes. I explained that it had its origins in a vision that was very famous in the middle ages, the vision of a Swedish nun called St Bridget. They aren’t well known now, but they shaped the way the story was pictured for many centuries. Tonight’s image seems much more sympathetic and cosy. It’s the image I call the “glow in the dark baby”, and you’ll have seen it on a thousand Christmas cards in one form or another. Here is Jesus, radiant with light, which shines directly from him and lights up those around him. But this image, as it happens, comes from St Bridget too, despite it’s very different feel .
In her vision she saw Mary and Joseph come into the stable. Joseph put a single candle in a wall sconce, and then went out, and this is what she says happened next. As Mary knelt in prayer “then and there, in a moment and the twinkling of an eye, she gave birth to a Son, from whom there went out such great and ineffable light and splendour that the sun could not be compared to it. Nor did that candle that the old man had put in place give light at all because that divine splendour totally annihilated the material splendour of the candle.”
Of course, the nativity story in the Bible has no such description. The birth isn’t described in any detail at all. Luke just says that Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger.” Matthew’s Gospel announces that after his birth, magi from the East come to see him. There’s nothing outwardly different about this child that would have distinguished him from any other, let alone the ability to generate light spontaneously like this, spectacular though it is!
So why would Bridget have imagined him as this “glow in the dark” baby? The answer is simple. It is because the Gospels tell us again and again that those who met the adult Jesus experienced him as someone who brought light into their lives, light which changed everything for them. People who had lived way out in the shadows of their society – the sick, the disabled, those marginalised through the things they’d done or the things that had been done to them, through poverty, gender or race – these people found themselves given healing, dignity and respect by Jesus. It must have felt like the lights had suddenly been switched on. Those who had been unnoticed and ignored found they were in the spotlight of God’s love.
These were the people who formed the earliest Christian communities, the people by whom and for whom the Gospels were written. It must have been the most natural thing in the world for them to describe Jesus as the light of the world. Not only had their lives been lit up, but Jesus had also told them that they were the light of the world too – that’s what he says in the Gospels. They were lights that were not to be hidden under bushel baskets but allowed to shine into the lives of others. For the early Christians this is a story that is all about light. So when Matthew and Luke come to write the introductions to their Gospels, the nativity stories we know so well, though they don’t speak of a “glow in the dark baby” they do fill them with other images of light – the light of a special star , the light of the angels. The light in these stories prefigures the light we’ll be hearing about as Jesus heals the sick and welcomes the outcast, a light which chases away the darkness of fear and shame in which they have lived.
It is important to understand that when we look at images like these, because if we don’t they can be rather dangerous. Everyone in this picture, even the ox, seems to be transfixed by this spectacular infant. All eyes are on the child – why wouldn’t they be? But the true light of Christ was not the dazzling splendour of a miraculous baby that makes us gawp in wonder, something wonderful but entirely mysterious and definitely a one-off. Nor is the light of Christ a cosy glow that simply warms our hearts on a cold winter’s night for a while. His light was light to work by, light to walk by, light that revealed the truth people desperately needed to see, truth about themselves, truth about others, truth about God.
Tonight, as we enjoy this lovely light-filled image of the baby, let’s remember that it is just a symbol of the truth, not the truth itself. It is one thing to kneel and adore for a moment, or an hour or a night, but we are not meant to live in this stable, relying for light on a “glow in the dark” baby who never grows up. The adult Jesus calls us to get up from our knees, to trust that the light of God’s love which we have seen in him can shine from us too, to light up our own lives and the lives of all who live in the darkness now.