O Holy Nightmare: Incarnation and Apocalypse

nativityBy Bill Wylie-Kellermann

Fritz Eichenberg, the artist so long associated with the Catholic Worker, published a wonderful and disturbing depiction of the Nativity. In the center foreground lies the babe on hay and in swaddling clothes. Nestled round are an adoring donkey and a cow. Through the crossbeams above, a star points down from the heavens. Hallmark, you would think, would snatch up the print for a comforting and conventional Christmas card.

But wait. A closer look through the archway reveals a village nearly off the edge of the frame. However, this is not the cozy skyline set on a Judean hillside as one might expect, but a bombed out city in flames. One has the feeling that it’s all coming this way, closing in on the child asleep, holy and innocent. Look again. Tucked beneath the hay is a soldier’s helmet. He is born in a year of war, and violence is near.

This is a biblically accurate portrait. We suffer much from the static tableau of Christmas card and creche. The biblical images of the incarnation are rendered flat and frozen.

Oh yes, the incarnation of Christ is a still point, a center for history, the presence of eternity in a moment of time. And the manger scene may signify well the dominion of Christ in creation, with all creatures gathered and bowed down.

Nonetheless, it is a still point at the center of a furiously turning world, very nearly the eye of a hurricane, which implicates cosmic portents, the powers of history, forces marshalled and moving, threats and intrigues, journeys and exiles, and raging political violence. In our conventional manger scenes, these are pushed off the edge of the frame, out of sight and mind.

We, whose hearts are drawn to the stillpoint of God’s love in Christ do not thereby escape the furies of our time. But we face and engage them differently – full of freedom and hope because in it all, beginning to end as end to beginning, God is with us.

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