The scene above, from the 12th century Copenhagen Psalter, depicts the Annunciation to the Shepherds (Luke 2:8-18). I think the Annunciation to the Shepherds is the most neglected scene in the cycle of Christmas images. The shepherds are there of course – at the Nativity scene adoring the Christ Child. But the specific value of the Annunciation sans baby Jesus is, I think, lost on most people.
Everybody loves depicting the “wise men” or “kings” as they are often (incorrectly) styled. I suppose it’s an opportunity to get multi-cultural without being politically incorrect since, absurdly, the kings are often diverse races. Christmas angels are also a favorite – the ability to generate infinite artistic variation on effeminate winged humans is a godsend to card companies. And of course, the holy family takes center stage – as I suppose they should.
These images are icons – or ikons if you wish. That is, though their subject matter is often historical in nature, the point of religious artwork is not representational (the same way photographs and portraits are) but pedagogical. When we look at a piece of religious art, we are not (at least in theory) trying to figure out what “really” happened or what the subjects really looked like. This is obvious because many of the beings in religious art are not corporeal entities at all. Though our favorite things to paint are God, Jesus, Mary, and angels, no one knows what God, Jesus, Mary, or angels look like. In the case of Jesus and Mary, this may be because we have no accurate pictorial record. But in the case of God and angels, it is not because our cameras did not have a high enough resolution to capture the moment – it is because there is literally nothing there to capture.
The proper way to examine religious art around Christmastime is not necessarily to get caught up on details but to pay attention to structure. A properly constructed nativity scene is not intended to represent what things really looked like the night of December 24 in A.D. 1. (At any rate Jesus was probably born in spring or autumn of 4 B.C.). Rather, the purpose of a nativity scene is to show what Christians believe about Jesus – that He is the center worthy of worship by kings and shepherds alike; clearly marked miraculously by a star; attended by angels, etc. But if the nativity scene is about Jesus, and maybe Mary and Joseph, what does this ikon teach us about ourselves? Unfortunately, not as much as we’d like.
The problem with the nativity scene – if this is really a problem – is that if we mistakenly try to discern ourselves in it, we will be misled. For in the nativity scene, Mary, Joseph, the magi, shepherds, angels, even the animals, can see and touch the object of their adoration – Jesus is in obviously in the middle. They can both hold and behold him. But as Christians, our often dry and uneventful lives of faith require us to persevere even in the visible absence of the one we claim to worship. In other words, if we try and succeed in putting ourselves in the nativity scene, Jesus vanishes. Jesus is simply not there in our lives the same way He is in ikons. Ikons depict in visual form what we cannot actually see (like halos). If you insert too many ordinary objects however, if you flood the ikon with what is visible, what is invisible becomes invisible again. This is partly why Christians have usually (though not always) been averse to inserting living persons into ikons. It is also why their structure was quite standard before the advent of artistic “realism.”
So, what is the proper Christmas ikon if we are trying to see ourselves in the Christmas story? The Annunciation to the Shepherds. Let me explain.
Writing is also a form of iconography. When we attempt to describe the transcendent, when we write about spiritual realities, we are not simply making factual informational statements. What we are actually doing is using language to “depict” what we believe about these things. Christians have long wanted for the Christmas story to be more fleshed out – to be more than a few verses in Matthew and Luke. So, early Christians made up stories about the nativity. (More sensitively, they had “traditions” or “legends”). The second century Protoevangelium of James paints the following ikon with words.
But as I was going, I looked up into the air, and I saw the clouds astonished, and the fowls of the air stopping in the midst of their flight. And I looked down towards the earth, and saw a table spread, and working people sitting around it, but their hands were upon the table and they did not move to eat. They who had meat in their mouths did not eat. They who lifted their hands up to their heads did not draw them back, And they who lifted them up to their mouths did not put anything in; But all their faces were fixed upwards. And I beheld the sheep dispersed, and yet the sheep stood still. And the shepherd lifted up his hand to smite them, and his hand continued up. And I looked unto a river, and saw the kids with their mouths close to the water, and touching it, but they did not drink. (Protoevanelium of James 13:3-10)
This passage from the Protoevangelium (i.e. “Infancy Gospel”) is in the first person and claims to be by Joseph himself (another neglected character in the Christmas story). This is clearly not so, but that is not really the point here. This Infancy Gospel was extremely influential in the way Christians thought about the nativity up into the middle ages. When early Christians thought of the first Christmas, they thought about it the following way. Mary and Joseph were on their way to Bethlehem. Because there was no room in town they settled for a cave (btw far more plausible than the wooden barns/shacks we imagine today). Joseph wasn’t even present at the birth of Jesus – he ran to look for a midwife. While Joseph was searching for a midwife, Mary gave birth in secret. Joseph did not see the Christ Child be born – but he did see something. While he was walking, time froze. He watched everyone’s and everything’s actions slow to a halt and then resume suddenly. It is clear what Christians mean by this literary ikon – at the moment Jesus was born, time stood still. Time stood still because God was entering it. And in the moment that time froze, Joseph simply looked up. It is because he looked up rather than ahead that Joseph saw anything at all. He lifted his gaze from the horizontal plane of “real” life and turned it to the vertical plane of transcendent realities. In this visual ikon, everyone stops what they are doing and are transfixed while gazing upward.
This also is only an ikon. No one knows what actually happened, thank God. In this traditional story enshrined in an apocryphal gospel, all we learn is that Christians think it is very important when you are on an errand for the baby Jesus to stop for a moment and look up. If we apply this lesson in Christian pedagogy to visual iconography, we will see why the Annunciation to the Shepherds is more important to us today than the Nativity scene. In the Nativity scene, no one is looking up. Mary, Joseph, the Magi, are all looking forward, or even down. They can see and touch baby Jesus and therefore what they (in the ikon) are experiencing is not faith but certainty. They are not walking by faith, (actually they are not walking at all), but by sight. This certainty is something which Christians are promised – not something we experience regularly in our life. We walk by faith, not by sight. Though we hope to one day adore Christ like Mary and Joseph in the nativity scene – gazing upon Him blissfully face to face in beatific vision – that is not our lot at the moment. For that, we need purity of heart. And what is that?
The Jewish-Catholic mystic Simone Weil (1909-1943) wrote a great deal about the meaning of God’s absence.
God can only be present in creation under the form of absence.
In this world, we only experience God through His visible absence. If we look around us in the world we live, we are confronted not by some unlimited beauty but, for the most part, by senseless suffering, injustice, frustration, and meaninglessness. We may try to comfort ourselves with religious and political fictions, but the truth is that many people, even or especially people of faith, live with an inexorable emptiness, a Void, inside of them. If we try to fill it with things, even our religious beliefs, we will have only illusory and temporary satisfaction. If we embrace this Void however, this emptiness is like a vacuum pulling down the grace of God.
We should not try to console ourselves by explaining our suffering in terms of God’s “providence” or “plan,” for that would be to fill the Void and keep God out. Instead, when we suffer, without any explanation, we should just gaze up.
[God] enters into contact with a human individual as such only through purely spiritual grace which responds to the gaze turned towards him… No event is a favour on the part of God—only grace is that.
In other words, while Christmas is a time in which people try to find reasons to be thankful and are likely to see many things (nice presents, warm and cozy feels, holiday hormones) as God trying to tell them something (perhaps “you is kind, you is smart, you is important”), no singular event in our lives is God’s favor. Only grace which comes when we embrace the absurdity and emptiness of our lives, is a favor or gift of God.
If you are, like me, someone who gets seasonally depressed, maybe it is exactly the pain, regret, or unfulfilled longing, which you should be grateful for.
The irreducible character of suffering which makes it impossible for us not to have a horror of it at the moment when we are undergoing it is destined to bring the will to a standstill, just as absurdity brings the intelligence to a standstill, and absence love, so that man, having come to the end of his human faculties, may stretch out his arms, stop, look up and wait.
When we suffer, because senseless suffering in a universe supposedly created by a good God is absurd, we cannot handle it. We are not being asked to cope with it, to pretend it’s not there. We are being asked to look up. It is absolutely impossible for us to lift ourselves up from this world of pain through our own effort. We simply cannot “rise above” or “transcend” our suffering. But if we look up (“I lift mine eyes unto the hills…”) it is just possible we will be drawn thither by the grace of God.
If we turn our mind towards the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.
But you only get the good news (“I bring you glad tidings”) if you look up. The shepherds were not looking for God when the angels brought them the gospel. They were doing their duty – they were keeping watch. The shepherds were keeping vigil over their sheep. Simone Weil writes of three “domains” of God’s will. The first domain is accepting everything in this world – even our suffering – as the will of God, and loving it for that reason. The second domain is doing our natural duties – which we can discern through reason. But there is a third domain in which we don’t know what our job is. It is in this third domain that looking up comes in handy.
In this domain we experience the compulsion of God’s pressure… God rewards the soul that thinks of him with attention and love, and he rewards it by exercising a compulsion upon it strictly and mathematically proportionate to this attention and this love. We have to abandon ourselves to the pressure, to run to the exact spot whither it impels us and not go one step further, even in the direction of what is good… When the pressure has taken possession of the whole soul, we have attained the state of perfection. But whatever stage we may have reached, we must do nothing more than we are irresistibly impelled to do, not even in the way of goodness.
So we need to wait. The purpose of suffering in our present very human life is to exhaust our intellect, will, and love bringing us to a standstill where all we can do is look up and wait. To watch the universe freeze as God enters our life. Not that we see Him do this. What we witness is the inexplicable standstill of our lives as we are pursuing the Good transfixed by its beauty.
And that is why we resemble the figures in the ikon of the Annunciation to the Shepherds. If we insert ourselves into the ikon, yes the angels disappear. But we are doing what we should be – we are looking up and waiting for God’s mercy. If we look up and wait as we should, we will get the message we need.
The will of God. How to know it? If we make a quietness within ourselves, if we silence all desires and opinions and if with love, without formulating any words, we bind our whole soul to think ‘Thy will be done’, the thing which after that we feel sure we should do (even though in certain respects we may be mistaken) is the will of God. For if we ask him for bread he will not give us a stone.
 Simone Weil, “He Whom We Must Love is Absent,” in Gravity and Grace, (New York: Routledge, 2003), 109.
 Simone Weil, “He Whom We Must Love is Absent,” in Gravity and Grace, (New York: Routledge, 2003), 112.
 Simone Weil, “Letter 1: Hesitations Concerning Baptism,” in Waiting for God, tr. Emma Caufurd, (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 4.
 Simone Weil, “Necessity and Obedience,” in Gravity and Grace, (New York: Routledge, 2003), 47.