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Food for imagination in Christmas stories and art



In the ancient world people always told stories about the childhood of famous people. The stories illustrated the direction and qualities of their adult lives, and usually grew with the telling.

Chris Johnston cartoonSo it was with Jesus. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both begin with different stories of his birth that illustrate its significance. Later story tellers adorned them with further details that helped people imagine the scene and to appreciate the meaning of the stories.

Luke's Gospel tells us that Jesus was born in a manger. The cribs add animals. Matthew has Eastern wise men visit Jesus with presents. Later stories give them crowns and make them kings, each with his own name and distinctive traits. Matthew also says simply that Joseph was told to get up and take Jesus to Egypt because Herod was seeking to kill him.

Later stories fill in their journey. Mary and Jesus ride on a donkey, led by a boy. Idols fall from their pedestals as they pass, and at one resting place palm trees bend to provide Jesus with fruit and waters flowed from their roots.

This last story provided rich material for artists to paint the scene and add their own details. The Bruges painter Gerard David depicts Mary in a dazzling blue dress, seated regally on a rock ledge feeding Jesus with a bunch of grapes, while the donkey with ears pricked up rests in the shade of trees and Joseph in the distance knocks fruit from a tree with a stick. Behind them lie a village and fields rising to a wooded ridge. When Caravaggio paints the same scene a century later he has an angel sing to Jesus while Joseph holds the score.

These details don't tell us much about what life was like along the sea road to Egypt, but they do illuminate the deeper meaning of the Christmas stories. They speak of the Son of God coming into our world to join us, so demonstrating how precious and what a great gift our world is.

The added details show us that to God not only large things matter: cities, towns and kings' business for example. Each tree, donkey, shepherd and sheep matter, together with the breathtaking world of reality and art to which they belong.


"These stories speak of the hope of a world cared for and abundant for all ... of a human world in which people work for one another as well as for themselves, and especially for the most vulnerable."


The embroidery on the Gospel stories shows that, like the painter and the refugees treading through the dust and heat of the sea road to Egypt, God dreams of a peaceful world in which people and nature live at peace, idyllic villages are well watered, trees are cared for, grapes hang in huge bunches, refugee children are fed, and where angels help make art.

These stories and images of Christmas speak also to the preoccupations of our own day and especially to the desire to protect our world for future generations. They speak of the hope of a world cared for and abundant for all, a world in which animals and plants will thrive as well as human beings.

They speak of a human world in which people work for one another as well as for themselves, and especially for the most vulnerable. They speak of a world in which people who seek protection can find an oasis and children can play.

This world can come about only through our attentiveness. And attentiveness roots in a rich imagination of what might be. Christmas stories feed our imagination.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Christmas



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Existing comments

In trying to get a small Advent prayer group. of which I am a member, to meditate on each Sunday's Gospel the facilitator had encouraged us to imagine the real scene, for example, John baptising the repentant in the River Jordan.. He researched (on Google) works of art of the Baptist down the centuries. He and the group found them unsatisfactory and not conducive to meditation. One member had visited Israel and was able to describe the alleged site on the Jordan where John had baptised Jesus.. So we had some idea of the geography of the place. The facilitator then produced two paintings by two Grade 6 students in his Special Religious Education class in the local government school.. John dominated the scene like he were the Wild Man of Borneo. knee deep in water - scrawny, long hair, unshaven, barely clothed, and a piece of honeycomb nearby. Off to one side on dry land was group of men dressed in cloaks, their faces twisted with distain. The Pharisees? On the other side scores of stick men, women and children. zigzagged towards the river. The repentant? We had our Composition of Place with absolutely minimal embroidery.

Uncle Pat | 18 December 2017  

Artists add the icing on the Christmas cake. In a letter to his mother dated Christmas eve, 1875, Gerard Manley Hopkins firstly thanked her for "your loving letter and presents and a very happy Christmas to you all." At the conclusion of the letter he writes of seeing a comet - "I have seen one three nights" and "At ten o'clock it is well visible in the northeast, not high; later it would be higher. Have you guessed the charade in the Xmas Illustrated? I have."

Pam | 18 December 2017  

It is interesting that the closer we go back in time to the real Jesus, who lived and breathed on this earth, the less 'Christian Art' there is. We have none from his time, if you discount items like the Turin Shroud whose provenance is questionable. In later times the Art of Eastern and Western Christendom diverged quite sharply. Icons are very different to Renaissance representations. They are supposed to be spiritually transparent 'windows into Heaven'. Imagination is probably an impediment to 'seeing Jesus' according to most valid orthodox Christian mystics. It is a long time since I attended a Lenten or Advent study group. I found them cliched and the facilitators really knew very little about their subject except for what was in the printed course material. Brainstorming on butcher's paper, whilst allowing everyone 'to have their say', really didn't enlighten anyone. I love the old Bible stories, especially when read aloud in good English. They really touch me. I think you need to be touched. Whatever way you are genuinely touched is a start.

Edward Fido | 18 December 2017  

Thank you, Andy and all other foot-soldiers of Eureka Street, for a thought-provoking year of Gospel-based embroidery. May Christmas bring each one good cheer as well as respite from the hard work you put into nurturing all who read.

Michael Furtado | 18 December 2017  

Nice piece Fr Andrew. What you hint at is the core Christ message of the transformation of the heart and perspective; and of the accepted order of things, of inevitably self-seeking corrupted established power structures. Simplicity, love and mercy; the common good. We still suffer greatly from the success of the Constantine project which was really diametrically opposite; Christ as support for the status-quo in both State and subordinate clericalised Church. Thank God for Francis who so obviously "gets it", and Pope John`s council which is beginning to come into its own. Happy and blessed Xmas ES.

Eugene | 19 December 2017  

A star at solstice shining/starkest in the heavens' canopy/sparked at first our curiosity/defying all known practices/our canons of astrology./ To Bethlehem, 'The Place of Bread'/ we came, arrested where/the star had stopped and blazed/above a back-yard stable./ Curious the shepherds/down from the hills:/no curse from them today/no usual sneer fro strangers;/heads bowed, kneeling,/cudgels fallen from their un-closed fists,/there for the taking . . . / as taken we were/with Child and Mother/beside a feed-box cradle./ Accustomed were we/to bearing gifts for kings/on our restless journeyings,/we made an offering: /compelled, as well, in wonder/ to give allegiance, pray; /held, as never by our absurd idols, myths,/their makers and their minders./ Gold, frankincense and myrrh we gave:/ standard fare of magi trade./ Re-made were we from then,/our knowledge and our craft/confounded and made obsolete/by the new mind, new heart/this Child, this Lord of lords,/had fired within us . . . / And Herod's voice was drowned/in angels' song. . .

John Kelly | 19 December 2017  

Hi Andrew and all, Verity La online magazine has just published this Christmas poem by P S Cottier: http://verityla.com/burning-the-donkey-ps-cottier/. Very apt.

Anne Elvey | 19 December 2017  

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