What Child is this?

A few years ago I found a delightful Baby Jesus at a sacred art store in Spain. During my trip to Spain I had gone to numerous Christmastide Masses where the adoration of the Baby Jesus took place afterwards: the priest would fetch a life-sized Baby Jesus from a manger built near the altar and bring it to the steps for the congregation to kiss. I loved that ritual. I could not recall seeing it in Brazil, so I thought I’d buy a similar image to take back as a gift for a priest I knew.

The Baby Jesus that I bought was more or less of this type, though closer to life sized. Photo: Circello, Nativity scene by Annassunta O., 03/01/16

When I got home and happily showed my purchase to some friends they responded with awkward flinches: “But he’s naked! Let’s get him some clothes!” I thought, my God, really? Are these people so strangely prudish that they’ve never diapered a baby? Have they never been in a household with an infant? I was used to toddlers running around in diapers. Newborns, not so much, as they were usually bundled up to avoid being chilly. But I’ve held my share of mostly-naked babies in my life and never thought it was strange.

The Baby Jesus was soon outfitted in a miniature chasuble and alb, which I thought cute, if a bit odd. But with all respect for local custom I delivered the gift dressed as required. (While trying to find photos of this from Brazil, I stumbled across this article about a similar custom in Mexico, though there it is specifically done for the Feast of the Presentation. There are a couple of good photos at the link.)

The subject came up again recently when I was showing some friends a painting I liked. Oh, but the Baby Jesus is naked! What good mother would leave her child undressed? Let alone Mary, Mother of God, who knew that her child was not just any old baby (which any mother would already consider a treasure!) but King, Redeemer, Saviour, Lord? Surely she wouldn’t just leave him laying about with not a stitch of clothes on, let alone do so in a desert climate in December and January, even less so in an unheated barn where the prickly straw and dirt floor would hardly be comfortable surfaces! This was the first time I’d heard something of a logical explanation for the apparent local custom.

If one needs greater authority than common sense, however, Holy Scripture specifies that the Holy Virgin wrapped the Christ Child in swaddling clothes before laying him in the manger. In fact, this detail was so important that the angels told the shepherds it was a sign by which they would recognize that they had found the Christ Child.

A swaddled Baby Jesus in a 14th century painting from Padua. Source.

I still wondered if the depictions of the Holy Child naked versus swaddled might have to do with regional styles, or with different epochs in art history. So I did a brief survey of images on Wikimedia Commons. Here are a few interesting things I discovered:

13th century Western paintings of the Nativity: the Christ Child is always in swaddling clothes.

14th century Western paintings of the Nativity: 15 examples swaddled, 3 dressed in a robe or gown. 1 draped with a loincloth, 4 naked.

15th century Western paintings of the Nativity: 4 swaddled, 41 naked, 4 draped in transparent sheer fabric that does not cover the nakedness.

Anything after the 15th century: naked, naked, naked

One odd result of the growing 15th century obsession with naked Baby Jesus is the plethora of images where the poor Baby is sprawled on the dirt floor at the feet of his apparently unconcerned parents and/or visiting angels or neighbors.

I checked Orthodox icons, too, for comparison. They were not sorted by date on Wikimedia Commons, my source of images. But the results were different. There were icons in which the Holy Infant was swaddled, dressed in a robe, or naked. But with a few rare exceptions this depended specifically on the context:

Baby Jesus in the manger: swaddled
Baby Jesus enthroned on his Holy Mother’s lap while adored by the Magi or surrounded by saints or angels: robed
Baby Jesus being given a bath by the midwife right after his birth (this is a not uncommon theme in Eastern Nativity icons): naked

This icon has the swaddled Baby Jesus up in the manger, and the naked Baby Jesus being bathed in the lower foreground.
Here’s another by the same artist showing the third common style: the Christ Child wearing robes, while seated on His Mother’s lap, in the presence of the adoring Magi.

So there you go – the curious case of the dressing of Our Lord by His Holy Mother, as depicted in art and text over 2000 years.

Vain Repetitions

I’m likely to just write about the same things over and over. I don’t think God minds. The birds praise their Creator with the same song each morning. It must be something to see from God’s eyes, as it were: the dawn rolling across the turning earth, pole to pole. Along that line of light arises a song of millions of birds, insects, animals, and the chants and calls of human prayer. And at dusk the same again, quieting into the gentle symphony of crickets and night birds as the darkness passes over.

If one could hear it all from the stratosphere, it would surely be amazing. Perhaps a sort of symphony in itself, with diminuendos over the oceans (though perhaps the fish sing in a range we cannot perceive with human ears?). And along with this surge of song, the crackles and hisses of storms, the groans of the dying, the cries of the newborn, the crashes of war, the peaceful rhythms of weaving, dancing, and chewing; the clop and jingle of harnessed horses, the hum and laughter of mealtime conversations, the crackle of motor vehicles.

Perhaps we have the advantage in listening from where we are – to only a small portion of the symphony, which to our small ears would be cacophony if heard all at once.

Foreigner

Living in Brazil has been an exquisite balance of joy and pain. I think it went through some predictable phases. At first I had no idea what was going on because I couldn’t speak the language. Then I realized I could speak well enough but still had no idea what was going on because people here just have completely different choice-making mechanisms than North Americans do. Then I tried really hard to fit in by adopting all of the local customs to the best of my (poor) ability. This caused a nervous breakdown. I gave up. I now happily live here, being my own weird self, refusing to participate in the optional parts I can’t bear, relishing the parts I love, and being patient with unavoidable necessities.

My husband and I have long joked that you can cooperate with life in Brazil, or you can leave. You can’t change the way things work here. Brazilians may complain about the details here, too, but no one really wants to do anything about it. It’s like people in Chicago complaining about cold winters. Duh? Or people in New York City complaining about slow cross-town traffic. Duh!

Once one has sufficiently abandoned all the strange ideals we were taught were important back in the United States, life is really quite lovely here. It’s kind of cool coming to realize that some things you were taught were important are, but most aren’t. I am happy to have been converted to some new beliefs, such as the belief that lunch with family is one of the most important activities a human being can participate in. Another is the belief that a proper lunch should last several hours, at a minimum. Ideally it just runs right on into afternoon snack and then supper. In fact, eating six times a day is nearly obligatory. And cake is likely to be served for most of those meals.

The cleaning lady who works for us once worked for a Canadian family who maintained a severe northern health-food diet. Food was to be eaten only on a specific schedule, and consisted mostly of high-fiber crackers, apples, lettuce, and other delicate, low-calorie items. The family thought Brazilian food extremely unpleasant and would not allow it in the house. This story came to light when I noticed she had become unusually gaunt and inquired about her health. We came up with a strategy for feeding her extra rice and beans on the days she worked with us, so that she wouldn’t waste away on the days she worked for the Canadians. I assured her this was not uncommon dietary fussing on the part of North Americans, but certainly not standard either.

I probably could just write about food. It’s such a central part of social life here that nearly all my confusions as a foreigner have been food-related. It runs the gamut from not knowing how to eat things properly (the olives! the bananas!) to not liking the food choices (my God, not more cake!) to being frustrated with the timing of meals (are you sure we can’t just stand up and gulp some coffee and toast? please?) to enjoying an eight hour ‘lunch’ with friends (my God, it’s really possible to just enjoy each others’ company and not have to hurry up and go anywhere! pass the wine!).

In any case, it seems to simply take some years to find ones way of fitting in somewhere. Long enough that I’ve thought I certainly wouldn’t want to start all over again somewhere else!

O Fan!

The new ceiling fan ran in blessed silence for a day. But mid-night it began to make a gentle groan. I grieved the loss of silence. I lay awake listening, and remembered the worst ceiling fan ever.

I had gone on another Carnival retreat. Religious groups in Brazil take advantage of the annual national street party to offer prayerful alternatives for those disinclined to stick around for the mayhem. This group had rented a portion of a convent in a residential neighborhood. It was a chunky modern four story building with a walled garden. My cell was narrow and dark, big enough to hold two dormitory beds, one against each wall, giving the hall door just enough room to open and let us in. A shuttered window and a wooden door led to a small balcony, though mosquitos and thieves provided an excuse for shutting those at dusk and not opening them again til the sun was up.

February is one of the hottest months in Brazil. Temperatures hit 100 or more with frequency, and evening downpours may provide some temporary relief, but also keep the humidity up. I was overjoyed to see that the room had a ceiling fan. I turned it on.

Kerchunkadunkadunkadunk kerchunkadunkadunkathunk kerchunkadunkamunkablunk.

It was a rather loathsome retreat for other reasons, but the fan was the icing on the cake. The first bird to sing each morning received a whole heaping heartful of gratitude and joy.

Figs for bananas

Our flock of tropical fruit-eating birds is very fond of bananas and papayas, but usually spurn any experimental fruits we put out (grapes, apples, oranges). Today, however, a cold and windy storm drove them to eat voraciously, and by 10am they had finished two bananas and were eating even the skins. All we had left in the house were some figs, so we put one out. The banana skin remained more popular than the fig for another half hour, at which point they gave up and dug into the figs, which are now quickly being decimated by the sopping wet tanagers and thrushes.

The warriors and the gecko

Since the quarantine I’d begun exercising outdoors, in a shared space around the apartment building. It hosts a steady stream of adults exercising, but at tide-like intervals all the young children stream out of the apartments to play together. In particular there is a herd of five boys, the oldest on a bicycle, the next three on scooters, and the youngest running along on foot. Several carry plastic swords. The runner carries some sort of elaborate space weapon that is nearly as tall as he is. Their game is unclear, but involves running back and forth the full length of the space (a good 100 meters end to end, I’d think). They pause at each end, sometimes dropping their scooters and bike and plunking down cross-legged on the pavement to discuss some Very Important Subject. Most delightful are their encounters with wildlife.

One day the oldest came running up to me with his hands cupped. “Do you want a gecko?” he asked. I didn’t understand, but enthusiastically asked to see what he had. He opened his hands to reveal a very tiny and unmoving gecko, minus half of its tail. “Is it still alive?” I asked. “Well, yes, but it’s rather suffering,” he replied with a certain delicacy. “You see, we tried to pick it up by the tail, but it broke off. And then we picked it up regular-like, but I think it’s afraid and tired.” “It probably would like to rest in the woods,” I suggested. “Just let me show my mom, then you can put him in the woods,” he agreed. He dashed off, followed by the rest of the herd, shouting for his mother.

After a bit he and his friends came stampeding back and graciously handed over the traumatized gecko. I was about to set him on top of the wall along the woods, but the boy suggested that in the woods a snake might eat him. I agreed this was possible, and instead laid the creature under some branches in a large flower box where he would be shaded from the sun and out of sight of birds.

There is a certain awe these boys hold for the natural world that cuts through their shouting battles and sword-waving charges. In an instant they stop and stand fascinated, watching a lizard, a monkey, or a caterpillar.

That fascination and engagement reminded me of the wondrous quality my childhood play spaces had when I was that age. An overgrown lot at the end of a suburban street seemed as vast and engaging as a wild prairie. A small mound of dirt, abandoned after some unfinished construction project, offered a challenging ascent and high view. The branches regularly trimmed from the neighbor’s very tall hedge made a cozy lean-to that lasted until the next lawn-mowing day.

The memories of these places are vivid still, more than 45 years later, more so than many other memories. It’s a delight to watch these kids experiencing something similar.

Reading in bed

Why is reading in bed a thing? I recall it being not only a thing, but a wonderful thing when I was a kid. I would read voraciously, even reading under the covers with a flashlight after lights out time. Lights out meant exactly “no more reading.”

At some point I stopped reading in bed. I think this was in part because books became larger and heavier. One can’t easily hold and read a large hardcover book in bed, at least not without a lap desk, cushions to support a semi-seated position, prism glasses and so on.

I’ve also rarely had a bedside table. I still don’t. Usually because the bedroom is too small to fit bedside tables next to the bed. Without a bedside table, there’s no handy reading light nor place to put your book when done reading.

And the fact is that even now that I have a kindle and a cell phone, both of which are designed to facilitate reading in bed, I really prefer to read books on paper, so I generally read in a chair in the day, not at night in bed. I especially love reading while holding a pencil and making little annotations as I read.

So there ya go. Life without reading in bed. It’s sort of like life without breakfast in bed: it looks rather intriguing and picturesque, but it’s not part of my life and doesn’t seem worth a big effort.

The glorious Virgin Mary was reading when interrupted by an angel…