Years ago, before I converted, I got this painting, called “Winged Wonderment“, painted by the artist Pamela Day. When I saw it, I was enchanted. Not particularly religious at the time, I was drawn in by the colors and the serenity and the fact that it had birds (I’m a bird watcher). It hung on the walls of one apartment and two houses, filling whatever room it was in with a burst of color and dreamy peace.
Then, when I became Catholic, my relationship with the painting changed. I worried that this painting may be blasphemous in nature, and in that new “want to do everything by the rules” phase that I suspect a good number of converts go through, I put the painting away, lest I accidentally offend God, while I tried to discern the meaning of the painting.
Now, a good six years later, I I finally got my answer. And the painting is now happily back on display at Clan Donaldson, filling a corner of the living room with the serene happiness that drew me to it years ago.
I found my answer in a Nativity set.
Well, a series of pictures of Nativity sets posted at various places on Facebook, really. The first one showed up in my feed earlier this week, and the caption read, “A friend of mine had her 11 year old son put up their Nativity scene. If you have boys… you totally get it!” and I did! As I looked at the Infant in that manger, surrounded by Lego Stormtroopers, I knew exactly what that boy was thinking. As he set up his family’s Nativity set, he meditated on that first Christmas, two thousand years ago. He thought about the tremendous, terrible, perfect gift humanity was given, come to us as a fragile baby. He thought about how that Baby was the most precious gift anyone could ever receive, and as is a natural response in males to the twin realities of preciousness and vulnerability, he made sure that Baby was protected. I will bet $10 that he was smiling and laughing while he set up Baby Jesus’ ass-kicking honor guard, and I will bet another $10 that it was laughter motivated by love and joy, not mockery.
We are physical creatures as much as spiritual ones, and Holy Mother Church wisely gives us things to occupy both aspects. We kneel and stand and bow and genuflect at Mass, so our bodies are involved. We have incense to smell and bells to hear and our Eucharistic Lord to taste, so our senses are involved. And St. Francis was acting on this wisdom when he set up the first Nativity scene back in the 13th century. Involve the body, and the lessons are learned twice as deeply.
The next sign that it was time to hang up Winged Wonderment again came from my friend Eric, in another Facebook picture. This one was a full-on riot of the nerdy and the sublime.
Batman was an ecstatic angel atop the stable, Deanna Troi and William Riker are stand ins for Our Lady and good St. Joseph, and Bill and Ted show up with their flocks of…um…creatures. The whole scene is so surreal and amazing, it strikes me as more true to the first Christmas than some of sentimental sets one sees. After all, I can’t for a minute imagine that a group of shepherds, when faced with the veil between worlds thinning and angelic choirs spilling out with their message of sublime joy, would respond with any more coherence or eloquence than Bill or Ted. And the trio of Darths as the Magi is brilliant- after all, forget whiny Luke- any true conversion needs to have Christ at the center of it.
Yes, there are mockeries of the Nativity out there. Things that verge on irreverent or pass into outright blasphemous.
There is also the odd, the mundane, and the empty headed, vapid representations that offend more in their saccharine preciousness than all the bacon Nativity sets in the world.
But I think that the Incarnation was such an immense thing that even though God linked Himself to our humanity two millennia ago, we still need time to process that act. One of the ways we do that is by making Jesus look like us, act like us, enjoy the things that we do- not that the Son didn’t do enough to make Himself accessible, but that doing so is so hard for us to grasp.
With that in mind, I’m not sure there’s a huge difference between this:
|Korean representation of the Holy Family, sent to me by my friend Micaela|
Again, I think it’s the intent behind the scene. Those constipated atheist groups that always pop up around Christmas time with their gospel of doldrums use traditional imagery,
and I don’t think anyone would accuse them of religious reverence.
So there was my answer for the painting. As Jesus said in Revelation 21:5, He makes all things new. I imagine that the moment God intersected with humanity in that most humble of birth rooms, all creation, all the way down to the very birds, rejoiced. And if birds were ever endowed with reason to articulate such things, I imagine they’d try to puzzle out the mystery of the Incarnation in their own ways, in their own images.
Just like the Nativity came before the Crucifixion, God’s offers us His inexhaustible Mercy before we are subjected to His perfect Justice. I can’t think of a better prop to help up meditate on that Mercy than Nativity scenes- Bill, Ted, flocks of birds, dinosaur-riding Darth Vaders and all.