Sunday, December 25, 2011

Altdorfer’s Nativity: God-with-Us in the Ruins

When you picture the Nativity in your mind’s eye, what do you see? Beyond the basic characters of Mary, Joseph, angles, shepherds, and a baby, and beyond the setting of stable and crèche, what feeling or feelings are expressed through what you imagine?

I did a google search on “greeting cards of the Nativity.” Some of the cards featured great works of art from past centuries. A few had a photograph of a stained glass window. Contemporary cards ran the gamete from cartoon characters to abstract renderings of the holy family and everything in between. But while the styles, appearances, and depictions vary widely, almost all connect at a similar emotional level. They share a sense of sentimentality. They convey peace and tranquility. Even if placed in a dark and lowly setting, most contemporary renderings have a feeling of warmth that speaks of a deep sense of hope and joy.

All of this being said, it is doubtful anyone today would create a painting of the Nativity that comes close to a work done by Albrecht Altdorfer in 1513. Altdorfer was a member of what is known as the Danube school of artists and he is considered to be the first person to focus on painting landscapes. Altdorfer places the Holy Family in the brick carcass of a house or building. As they huddle together under a shoddy roof, the entire structure looks as if it is about to collapse on Mary, Joseph, and their baby. The sky is dark and ghostly, more like what we associate with Halloween than Christmas. Three angels (who look like toddlers with wings) cling to the edge of the manger looking at the baby with rapt curiosity. Three other angels hover in the sky above, studying some kind of scroll-like document. Perhaps it is the song of Gloria they are to sing, or it might be the message of glad tidings they are to proclaim. Either way, the look on their faces says the angels are absolutely puzzled as to why the Lord of all creation would be born in such a setting. Mary is at peace as she gives thanks for the birth of her son. Joseph, standing behind her, cups his hand around a candle in an attempt to shield it from the elements.

Altdorfer’s Nativity has spoken to people at various points in history. Dietrich Bonhoeffer meditated on it during Advent in 1943. At the time, he was imprisoned by the Nazis and awaiting execution for his role in a plot to overthrow Hitler. Given his bleak future and the way war was ravaging his country, you can imagine how the painting might have conveyed to him something about God’s presence in the midst of a societal collapse and the mystery of God’s love in the wreckage of life. He wrote this to his parents:

The Altdorfer Nativity, which portrays the Holy Family at the manger amidst the ruins of a dilapidated house – whatever made him do that 400 years ago, against all tradition? – is especially on my mind these days. Perhaps Altdorfer meant to tell us, “Christmas can, and should, be celebrated in this way too.”

Deborah Smith Douglas, a writer and laywoman in the Episcopal Church, was drawn to this work in Advent, 2001 – only a handful of weeks after the events of September 11. She wrote this about what it said to her:

Altdorfer’s painting “speaks of the presence of God in the midst of the worst we know about helplessness, vulnerability, alienation, exile… [It] bears profound witness to the nature of God-with-us, the breathtaking presence of divine love, at home in the ruins, amid the fragility and brokenness of the human condition.”

No single work of art truly captures the magnitude of that moment in Bethlehem. Each is a best a single frame of a much larger motion picture reel. Certainly Jesus was not born in the shell of a 16th century German home and you can argue with the accuracy of other features in his painting if you like. Still, Altdorfer says something very important to us on Christmas Eve 398 years later. He points out that our warm, sentimental images of the Nativity are nothing more than another frame or two of the movie. The more frames we see, the greater sense we have of what the film is about.

Our theology holds that all of creation came into being through God the Son. In my mind’s eye, I picture it being something like The Scorcher’s Apprentice, where Mickey Mouse unleashes new-found powers to create incredible displays of beauty, awe, and wonder. Angels, archangels, and all the heavenly host watch in rapture as each new day and each new dawn brings another glorious manifestation of divine love and power. And when it is finished the Father and Son sit side by side and the heavenly chorus offers unceasing praise. But creation turns dark, infested by sin. In a move unthinkable, the Creator becomes a creature in an attempt to draw the whole world back to himself. It is a decision with celestial consequences. The song of angels goes silent for the throne is now empty and the person they sing to is no longer there.

Whatever the hosts of heaven thought of this plan we do not know. We can imagine they envisioned God the Son being born into a powerful royal family. Perhaps they steeled themselves for battle with the forces of evil. Surely none of them expected the baby to born in the kind of ruins Altdorfer depicted and surely none thought the only protection afforded God the Son would be the flickering candle cusped in Joseph’s trembling hands. This is not a “our cheeks are nice and rosy, and comfy, cozy are we” depiction of Christmas, is it. Surely Altdorfer got it right when he painted the angels hovering above the crèche checking over their marching orders in astonished disbelief.

This Advent I have heard several people say that this Christmas won’t seem like Christmas at all. The reasons vary: children have grown older and the magic of opening presents just is not what it used to be; young adults have left home and won’t be here this Christmas; unemployment, underemployment, or retirement have curtailed normal celebrations; the marriage is on the rocks; health concerns have changed and challenged our lives; a parent or sibling or spouse has died and Christmas is dominated more by absence than presence. Lurking in the background of our personal lives are ominous world events and troubling news at home. The peace and warmth and joy of Christmas seem to get briefer with each passing year. The Christmas we remember, which is the Christmas we want, does not seem to be the Christmas we get.

If you could take all of this, break it down to its colors, put those colors on a pallet, take brush and put it to canvass to make something that expresses how it all feels, you might just come up with Altdorfer’s Nativity. If you were a person of deep faith, you might just come up with a painting that shows the Holy Family huddling in all the darkness and sadness and uncertainty of our lives. Christmas is celebrated not just in living rooms with happy children and perfect families. God is with us even more so in the midst of life’s brokenness and heartache and loss.

Christmas is about traditions, but there is only one tradition that really matters… God loves us enough to be with us no matter where we find ourselves in life. Christmas is about gathering with family and friends, but the friend that matters most is the one who was born in a manger and says, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Christmas is about giving and receiving gifts, but the most important gift we need is the gift in the crèche on that first Christmas night… the gift of God-with-us.

Perhaps your life is in a good place on this night. Perhaps you find yourself getting the Christmas you always wanted. If that is where you are, I could not be more happy for you. There are hundreds of thousands of depictions of the Nativity out there to speak to you and where you are in life. But for some of us, I imagine this night is a night of mixed emotions. Yes, we know we are blessed and there is much to celebrate in our lives. But it is also a night that brings into shape focus the pain and heartache and brokenness and absences and losses in our lives. For us, the ruins in Altdorfer’s Nativity paint a picture of where we are. And there, in the very center of it all is God-with-us. Meditate on that image and allow it to speak to you, as it spoke to Bonhoeffer and Douglas and countless others. May you come to know in a new and renewing way the presence of God in your life.