Flemish Renaissance painter, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1566 painting, The Census (or Numbering) at Bethlehem, treated a biblical story as a contemporary event in which he referenced political and severe bureaucratic methods of the Spanish administration in southern Netherlands and Amsterdam, making a subtle parallel to the census required by the Romans for taxation during Jesus’ time.
In the very midst of our daily and often jam-packed lives, we are called to task and travail, even travel, that burden us and those we love. In the Holy Family’s situation, it was the familiar story of having to make a long, walking trip of many days and miles in order to be counted for taxation by the hated Roman oppressors, a trip made especially difficult in the cold of desert winter nights and the full-term pregnancy of young, soon-to-be new mother Mary. They were lonely foreigners in a foreign land, commanded by strangers to do the unwelcome, unnoticed, yet surrounded by people going about their lives as usual, all unaware that the birth of a Savior, Christ the Messiah, Immanuel, God come down to earth, was being carried on a lowly donkey. Ironically, this would be the same humble animal which would escort Jesus to the biggest trial of his life in Jerusalem some 33 years later where he would be more than noticed then, yet equally unwelcomed and misunderstood, even denied and crucified.
Take a look at this famous painting. What do you see? What don’t you see? What would you rather not see? With what or whom do you identify? What feelings come up for you about the scene, the colors, the season, the goings on? Who or what is worth paying attention to, or do the tasks and mundane aspects of their typical daily life all just blend together? Where do you place yourself in this painting, even if you have to disregard the specific location and customs of the times? What is its message to you?
Who or what is carrying on almost invisibly in this painting? What does this painting have to do with the Holy Family and their arduous trek to Bethlehem? Do you sense or see them in the humble brown colors of the crowd and busy scene? How is this like the coming of Jesus into this world and time…..or into this advent season and into your life in particular? If you were to repaint this picture to represent your life and our times, what socio-political and economic scene that misses Jesus’s arrival would you choose? Can you imagine the rebirth of Christ entering into the center of that situation changing it for the good will and peace for all?
So we all must ask in response to Bruegels’ painting, is there room in your “inn-sides,” your perceptual field, your crowded schedule, and especially in your heart, for the silent humble arrival of the birth of Christ, again, this year? How obvious is Christ’s arrival in our neighborhoods and homes this year?
How open and welcoming is my time and the door of my mind and heart to the arrival of Jesus on a daily basis in the midst of all that is going on around and within me? How actively is my life welcoming Him in, spreading His light and love, expressing and proclaiming him loudly and clearly to others, this season and beyond?
We all need to examine what doors of our lives are closed off to Jesus, the closets stuffed with our own self will and way, outside of which Jesus continues to stand humbly, quietly, patiently knocking, respectfully waiting to be invited in. Over what do we hang No VACANCY signs, crowding Jesus out of spaces actually vacant of the love and light of God? What are the rags of resentments we let pile up in the dark corners of unforgiven sins and unresolved grief left smoldering in our basement? What are the unacknowledged longings, unreceived healings, and unspoken prayers locked in the attics of our souls, alongside any shadowy parts of ourselves we close the curtains upon, thereby shutting out God from where His love is needed most?
Or how do we only let Jesus in as a temporary guest when we are in dire straits or tragic circumstances, the rest of the time seeing him as a challenging or inconvenient intruder? And how do we miss Jesus at our door when the common concern or strange, unwelcome person comes knocking, especially when we are preoccupied with the duties of the day?
Might we ask Jesus to boldly break down the doors we keep closed to him just as he overturned the money changers’ tables in the temple court? How can we notice and allow, even encourage Jesus’ continual appearances, as well as his surprise intrusions, into our lives? How might we empty ourselves, our schedules and spaces, to make more room, more inroads of our lives, for his presence? How might we go on a vacation from our self-will-run-riot life so Jesus can have free reign in all the room we have made available for him to move into?
Jesus is relentless in his arrivals, expressions of love and invitations in our lives! I am glad he ignores at least some of the NOT ME, NOT HERE, NOT NOW, WAIT UNTIL I AM READY, NO VACANCY signs I erect in his loving path to my soul.
How about in this Advent we stop the endless procession of time and space filling activities and concerns that often take up residence in us? Let’s collectively change the parade of materialism and cease the La Posada of repeating the old, familiar story in which whole villages close the door of their hearts and hearths to Christ’s birth. Wouldn’t it bless us and honor God to change the narrative of having little to no room in the Inn-dwelling of our souls?
In conclusion, how might we each adjust the picture we may have rather unconsciously painted of Christ’s advent into your busy life? Let’s keep asking ourselves if Jesus’ birth is central, or on the border, of how we frame our time and space, this Advent and always?Adele P. Swan
Prayer: Oh God of Christmas present and then of Easter presence, may Christ be front and center in the portrait of our lives, now and forever. Amen.