Find God’s glory at Christmas
Rev Terry Wall
When children first begin to paint, they portray people with long arms and legs. From their perspective adults must tower over them. The most prominent feature that they trace is the face. These large round faces usually have eyes, nose and mouth, sometimes ears and if you are lucky hair.
Child psychologists tell us what we all instinctively know: that babies are attracted to the face of mother and father. Even though the eyesight of the newly born is not well developed, the baby makes out the features of the faces closest to it.
The face is the most expressive part of our body. As children we have an inbuilt capacity to read the messages on our mother’s face. We long to learn that the world can be trusted. Warmth and love, attention and acceptance are communicated long before words come into play.
As the infant searches the face of its mother there is a yearning to discover that the world is filled with hope and promise, that we are treasured and cherished. It is a moment that has the power to shape our future. Will we find what we need? Failure to find such assurance can be deeply damaging.
The mother’s face plays a crucial role in our human development. So deep is this that it lasts for a lifetime. The first faces that we encounter draw out our personhood. Parents, through their beholding of the child in wonder, have the capacity to ensure the humanity of the child.
The earliest depictions that have survived of the Madonna and Child date from the 3rd century and were discovered in the catacombs of Rome. They always have a theological significance. Sometimes they have Jesus as if enthroned on Mary’s knees. In later images Mary points to her son. In the Middle Ages, responding to various heresies, artists in the West painted Jesus naked to emphasise that Christ was fully human as well as fully divine.
Popular piety marvelled at the icons of Mary and Jesus reading in them a world of meaning about the grace of God. It was intuitively aware of how the mother shaped the son, how faith was about relationship and how incarnation was related to God’s embrace of this world. The icons spoke of a world in which grace transformed relationships.
Christian faith does not call us to despise the things of this world. It challenges us to see them in the light of Christ and deepens and enriches them. It is not surprising that the intimacy of Jesus with Mary was seen to speak of God’s intimacy with us. As Mary beheld her son, she drew out his humanity. In a similar way, Jesus restores and draws out our capacity to relate to God.
At the heart of the depictions of Jesus and Mary is a relationship of trust, affection and nurture. It is not an exclusive relationship, but one into which we are invited. Frequently in the icons there is a sense that we are beckoned by Mary to see “the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians. 4:6).
The icon pictured was given to CCANZ as a blessing from the enthronement of His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph of New Zealand and Exarch of Korea and Japan in 2003. Metropolitan Joseph is from the Greek Orthodox Church.