Off Schedule

Despite Lent I am fascinated with Christmas: In reading about the Nativity I got sidetracked by the detail of swaddling clothes (previous post), and then by the annunciation to the shepherds. Here are some notes I copied from the Catena Aurea, in case such things interest you. In Scripture every word is considered, a person or event or detail is never mentioned without significance. Which leads to no end of little details to meditate on:

Ambrose: with what care God builds up our faith: “An Angel teaches Mary; an Angel teaches Joseph; an Angel the shepherds also…”

Chrysostom: “To Joseph the Angel appeared in a dream, as to one who might be easily brought to believe, but to the shepherds in visible shape as to men of ruder nature. But the Angel went not to Jerusalem, sought not for Scribes and Pharisees, (for they were corrupt and tormented with envy.) But these [shepherds] were simple men living in the ancient practices of Moses and the Patriarchs. There is a certain road which leads by innocence to Philosophy.”

Bede: No where in the whole course of the Old Testament do we find that the Angels who so constantly appear to the Patriarchs, came with light. This privilege was rightly kept for this time when there arose in the darkness a light to them that were true of heart. Hence it follows, and the glory of God shone round about them. He is sent forth from the womb, but He shines from heaven. He lies in a common inn, but He lives in celestial light.

Cyril: on anointing: Christ – anointed, like the kings of old, or by prophetic grace, like Isaiah says to Cyrus (Isaiah 45), or as in the anointing by the Holy Spirit, as God Himself anoints those who believe in Him.

Why do they keep saying he is in swaddling clothes? Not, as in my previous post, to emphasize that he was not naked, which probably was assumed, but rather to emphasize that he was not born into riches:

Bede: “the sign given us of the newborn Saviour was, that He would be found not clothed in Tyrian purple, but wrapped in poor swaddling clothes, not laying on gilded couches, but in a manger”

Maximus: “But if perhaps the swaddling clothes are mean in thy eyes, admire the Angels singing praises together. If thou despisest the manger, raise thy eyes a little, and behold the new star in heaven proclaiming to the world the Lord’s nativity. If thou believest the mean things, believe also the mighty. If thou disputest about those which betoken His lowliness, look with reverence on what is high and heavenly.”

Of the heavenly chorus singing: 

Gregory: “At the same time they also give praises because their voices of gladness accord well with our redemption, and while they behold our acceptance, they rejoice also that their number is complete.”

Origen: “How then does the Saviour say, I came not to send peace on the earth, whereas now the Angels’ song of His birth is, On earth peace to men? It is answered, that peace is said to be to men of good will. For the peace which the Lord does not give on the earth is not the peace of good will.”

Augustine: “For righteousness belongs to good will.”

The shepherds go in haste (Ambrose, “For no one indolently seeks after Christ.”). And they find Mary, Joseph and the babe, listed in that order… so not just Christ, but the Holy Family named so: first Mary, then Joseph, then Jesus.

Taddeo Gaddi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lame

An elderly priest with a weak memory once confided that his strategy for keeping track of students at the seminary was to nickname them by physical characteristics. He told me a few of the nicknames, and I must admit that while I also have a terrible time remembering common names, it was easy as pie to remember “Itchy” or “Skyscraper” or “Fatty”. It reminded me of the way fragments of visual memory linger for decades: the astonishing width of the librarian’s hips; the startling height of a man in the supermarket; the strange blond afro of a pale boy in band; the bold dragging gait of a tiny girl with deformed legs.

Such details constantly draw my eye even now. Why the fascination? Is it because there is something out of the ordinary there? A body moving out of rhythm with the jouncing crowd? Probably in part, as the same attention grabs everyone when someone on the crowded street suddenly leaps or runs or falls. Perhaps, too, because the bent bodies, limping gaits, and twisted feet remind me of my own fragility. As when a twinge in the back spirals into thoughts of arthritis and osteoporosis, or even (in anxious times) strange fatal diseases or the tortures afflicted on prisoners.

Unusual things become points of memory, too. Like the large oak where we stop to rest in a forest of slender maples. There’s a relief in the familiarity of seeing the same people in the same place every day. The world seems to be carrying on peacefully when the landmarks are there. Even a stranger, notable only for his twisted legs or sideways gait, is missed when he vanishes for a few weeks.

It makes more interesting the odd suffering of the invisible: those who seem all alike. At a new job the easily remembered quirky folks are a relief, and the panic comes from the myriad secretaries and managers with matching heights, weights, hair cuts, and fashion choices.

Or, in another context, there is deliberate sameness. I recall a story about a monk who never learned the names or faces of his brothers, as he took to heart the introspective discipline of keeping his eyes on the floor. It points to a different priority: that of treating each equally like Christ.

“Master of Imola, The Nativity with Six Dominican Monks, 1265/1274, miniature on vellum, overall: 46.8 x 36 cm (18 7/16 x 14 3/16 in.), Rosenwald Collection, 1946.21.12”

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!