The Adoration of the Shepherds was painted by a student of Rembrandt. Note how light emanates from the Christ-child at the center of the painting and dissipates as it moves away from that center. The light of Christ is reflected in the faces of Mary and Joseph, and the band of shepherds, in adoration, one and all. Soft light illuminates the face of a child playing off to the right, but the corners of the barn seem dark, save the scantest of reflections caught by several outliers and some wood.
At first glance, the wood appears to be beams of the barn structure, and perhaps they are, but these same beams form a cross. The foreshadowing is perhaps obvious, that Jesus’ death was present with him at his birth. Jesus as the Christ was born to die, and not die any normal death, but a brutal and violent death on a cross.
Many saints appear to have been born with their deaths destined at their cradles. Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Martyrs of Uganda. If not destiny, could their courses have been written into their DNA? Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, could not have lived without proclaiming the injustices of Jim Crow and racial injustice. But, like portrayed in this stirring painting, could crosses have hung above their cribs like some child’s starry mobile? Maybe, but at the least I suspect their deaths as being an inevitable conclusion to their living, not necessarily destiny. Death is so often a part of life, and life lived with meaning, as we know, can be dangerous.
Regardless, this artist captures a truth often missed, that Jesus’ violent death was not just a part of his life, but an ingredient integral to his humanity. Whether by cross or some other means, death in the face of death was requisite to death’s defeat. In some mystical and inexplicable way, death and darkness and evil and sin could be defeated only by the death of goodness – and the ultimate truth that pure goodness could not be constrained by death. Jesus as Son of God, Son of Man, submitted to and then overcame the grave with the result being the obliteration of the veneer of darkness enshrouding the world. Leaving the residue of peace.
Christmas is thus the holiest of Christian celebrations. To be sure, Easter represents the ultimate defeat of death and darkness, sin and destruction. Life wins. Hope wins. Peace wins. Love wins. At Easter. But, Easter is chronologically second to the incarnation, when God chose to become incarnated into and subject to the broken and enslaved world in which we live. With his human birth, his death and resurrection were foregone conclusions. The cross (and empty tomb) are prominent at the birth. The cross, the empty tomb, and the birth are together kyros, the fulfillment of God’s choice to be with us. The fullness of time.
Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the ages. Emmanuel.
Happy Christmas. And peace.