Earlier I mentioned that this semester I had my students blogging in order to have them regularly write and engage one another. The model I followed is called ”Hub-and-spoke blogging,” as my class blog operates as a hub for the class. All of the students were put into groups of 4 or 5, and each assignment they were required to read the blogs within their group and make comments. These also functioned as ready-made groups for in-class work. Overall I was very pleased with the role the blogs played in the class – I would use them again. Over the next couple of weeks I am going to reflect more on what worked well and what I would change next time I decide to integrate blogging in one of my classes. For those interested in the meantime, here is my no frills blog for the class.
Phew! That John the Baptist guy is upsetting. Glad we can leave him behind.
What were those Hebrew prophets talking about all through December? That was confusing. Oh well. Look! Jesus is so cute!
Not so fast. If we look at examples of the Nativity from the visual arts, we can see that the general eschatological thrust of Advent becomes more focused, giving us a glimpse of Jesus’ passion already at the scene of this birth. All the eschatological themes of the Advent season converge in the Nativity tableau and are carried forward into Christmas. This should not surprise us. The birth of Christ and his salvific death form the cosmic fulcrum upon which the beam of human history rests, with creation and eschaton at each end. In a nativity icon this is super concentrated. Incarnation and eschaton are so ingeniously and inextricably intertwined that we might not even read “passion” in what is written in the icon unless we understand the symbolic significance of the iconographic elements. The best known example of this is the gifts of the wise men: while gold and frankincense represent Jesus’ kingship and priesthood, respectively, myrrh, used for embalming, is a symbol of his death.
For a further example, I would draw our attention to the ox and the ass. These two manger animals are ubiquitous in Nativity images. They peer over the new-born Christ child in wonderment, usually with their muzzles close to the child, as if to warm him with their breath. Their significance should be plain: The ass carries Jesus into Egypt, away from the murderous Herod who, like Pharoah, orders the slaughter of infants. (The flight into Egypt in Matthew’s gospel is the first of many Jesus/Moses parallels.) Later, the ass will carry him into the holy city of Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowd: “Hossana! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” The ass who greets the Lord at his birth is the same ass who bears him into Egypt and carries him to his death at Jerusalem where he is hailed as ”king of Israel” but crucified as a common criminal. The red ox stands as a stark and basic symbol of Hebrew cultic sacrifice. While the symbolism of the ass is quite rich, the ass is merely Jesus’ vehicle. The ox is a figure of Jesus himself. Consider the following example:
In this very early nativity relief, the ox and the ass are present even when other figures, such are Mary, are absent. Here’s why: the ox and the ass form a strong Christian typology based on the Hebrew prophet Isaiah: “An ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger; But Israel does not know, my people has not understood.” (Isaiah, 1:3). While these two animals represent Jesus’ passion, their “recognition” of the messiah also shows that the natural world, created through the Word, knows Jesus from his very birth.
(Aside: Unfortunately, we can also see how this typology could have an anti-Semetic bent: even the ox and the ass recognize what “Israel does not know” and “has not understood.” Let us note, at least, that such a reading would do violence to the Bible itself as Isaiah’s introductory lament sets the condition for Israel’s redemption, not condemnation.)
Based on this typology, the ox and the ass are the two earliest Nativity characters. Before the 4th century, Epiphany images were dominant since the celebration of “Epiphany” was much more prominent than the celebration of the birth of Christ as we now know “Christmas”. When nativity images begin to appear in early Christianity the scenes are simple. Only a few figures are represented but the bare minimum are the child, the ox and the ass. The appearance of Mary and Joseph (alway a conflicted figure) and the conflation of the adoration of angels and shepherds with the arrival of the magi occurs gradually over a couple of centuries.
Look at the child in the relief. His tight swaddling clothes are evocative of burial wrappings. In the byzantine tradition, there is an intentional connection between the swaddling clothes of the infant in a Nativity icon and the burial clothes of the Epitaphios (epi- upon; taphos- grave or tomb) icon which is venerated and anointed during Great Friday Vespers. Also on Great Friday, the “soma” icon on the crucifix is taken down from the cross and shrouded in identical wrappings before it is processed and reposed in the sanctuary.
The following modern icon illustrates this nicely:
Note, as well, that the “manger” is a cave, a small hollow in a rock formation that mirrors Jesus’ tomb in the gospels. In many icons, Jesus’ cradle is a stone box. Who would lay a child in a coffin? What macabre motive would make an artist paint a baby as a mummy and give him a tomb as his nursery? Indeed, the motive is not macabre, but joyful and eschatologically triumphant: we only understand the significance of the incarnation if we hold it in tension with Jesus’ saving death; we may not separate the two. This also reminds us that the liturgical year commemorates events in the life of Jesus but it never parses the paschal mystery.
When I look at a Nativity icon and I see a child embraced by death, and embracing death, I have at least an inkling of what Rilke was, perhaps, trying to convey in the first Duino Elegy:
“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.”
- (sorry for the long post!)
I recently read the commencement address given by Ignacio Ellacuria, SJ in June 1982 at Santa Clara University. (Ellacuria would be killed in El Salvador just over seven years later, in November 1989, at the very university about which he speaks in this address, Universidad Centroamericana.) The talk is available here: http://www.scu.edu/jesuits/ellacuria.html. Ellacuria’s words have made me reflect again on a topic which has emerged many times on this blog: namely, the preferential option for the poor. In particular, I want to ask, What role does the university play in realizing this option? And how does our theology relate to this task of the university?
Ellacuria may provide some guidance:
A Christian university must take into account the gospel preference for the poor. This does not mean that only the poor will study at the university; it does not mean that the university should abdicate its mission of academic excellence–excellence which is needed in order to solve complex social issues of our time. What it does mean is that the universitv should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those without science; to provide skills for those without skills; to be a voice for those without voices; to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to make their rights legitimate.
What strikes me about this passage is that the realization of the option for the poor at the university is not limited to a sector of it, such as a Center for Social Concerns, as we have at Notre Dame (http://socialconcerns.nd.edu/), or some analogous institution. Ellacuria certainly does not deny the value of this sort of center–which, at Notre Dame, does serve the poor in concrete ways that are worthy of support. But this vital part of the university is not his focus. The things he calls for involve the university’s work as a whole. The intellectual presence of the university should have a positive outcome for the poor. Its academic excellence should provide the means to analyze the complex social realities of a world in which the majority of humankind lives in poverty. The science and the skills that the university develops and teaches should be used for those who have no access to them. The collective voice which the university has–of numerous students, faculty, staff, and administrators, whose voices are heard throughout campus–should give voice to those who have none (which means, above all, listening to them, and bringing their concerns out into the open).
Theology, as both an academic and a Christian pursuit, must have an important role to play here. But what exactly is it? It cannot be to reliquish its intellectual rigor in order to be an advocate for the poor. Rather, as Ellacuria suggests, it must put its intellectual rigor in service of the poor. Nor can it be to forsake faithful reflection on the gospel in order to make way for a secular ideology. That is far from Ellacuria’s mind. Ultimately, for Ellacuria, theology’s role at the university is this: to understand more deeply how to confront the realities of a sinful and suffering world in an authentically Christ-centered way.
Much more really needs to be said on this topic. But for now, perhaps you and I can take some time to meditate on the concluding words of Ellacuria’s address, in light of our own contexts (wherever we are):
And how do you help us [the poor]? That is not for me to say. Only open your human heart, your Christian heart, and ask yourselves the three questions Ignatius of Loyola put to himself as he stood in front of the crucified world: What have I done for Christ in this world? What am I doing now? And above all, what should I do? The answers lie both in your academic responsibility and in your personal responsibility.