Behold the beauty of the Lord
Isaiah 52: 7-10 John 1:1-14
One of the great treasures of the University Church is the painting which stands above the High Altar.
It is actually loaned to us by the Ashmolean Museum. And yet I can’t think of a better setting for this painting of the Virgin and Child. My eyes are drawn to it every time I come into this building.
The painting is by the French painter, Simon Vouet. Born in 1590, Vouet learned his trade in Italy. He travelled in England and as far away as Constantinople before eventually being summoned at the age of 38 to work in the court of Louis XIII, who was King of France until 1643.
Lodged at the Louvre, Vouet was inundated with commissions from members of the Royal Court, including Cardinal Richelieu. Along with his ecclesiastical patrons, Vouet’s experience in Italy, particularly numerous commissions to paint various altarpieces, and the way he had this extraordinary ability to create a harmonious mixture of architecture, painting and sculpture, gave real impetus to religious painting in Paris.
Meanwhile in England, the English Civil War was raging, with the whole nation caught up in religious and political turmoil. At the beginning of the decade in which the puritan, Oliver Cromwell, tried to cancel Christmas, Vouet painted this extraordinary image, which proved rather popular. It isn’t Vouet’s only version of this particular subject. The Virgin and Child of the Column.
It is a touching portrait – literally – we see Jesus as a baby playing with his mother’s face, while she holds him in her arms.
And it’s a powerful image for us to contemplate at a time when human contact seems so difficult and problematic. And I think most of us have come to realise that in these strange times when contact is so difficult, some element of our humanity has been lost and diminished.
As we ponder this image, we are reminded that when we speak of the incarnation we are speaking of flesh, the body, the tangible and the real.
And all of that is infused with God’s very presence, so that our lives, even in their messiness, their brokenness and confusion, may be taken up into the divine life and transformed and transfigured by God’s love. As one of the great theologians of the early church, St Irenaeus, put it, ‘The Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, …., through His transcendent love, has become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself’ (St Irenaeus, Adversus haereses 5).
Its an insight which we find again in the writings of the great Anglican divine, Lancelot Andrewes, who in a Christmas Sermon recognises that in the incarnation, in the Word made flesh, ‘the great promise of the Old Testament’ is accomplished, that ‘He should partake our human nature’: he goes on to say that ‘the great and precious promise of the New’ Testament is that we should ‘partake his divine nature’. ‘Both this day are accomplished’.
The psalmist speaks of the desire ‘to behold the beauty of the Lord’ and when we see the delight and joy on Mary’s face, we recognise that she is doing just that, contemplating the beauty of the Lord, captivated by the vulnerability of his gaze, rejoicing in the gentle touch of his grace.
I love the quality of attentiveness in this painting, as Mary is attentive to Jesus, so the child is attentive to her, as God is attentive to us.
This Christmas many of us will have had plans disrupted. And for many of us this will be a Christmas like no other. It is not what we expected. And yet, the nativity story is full of details about plans changing at the last minute, of people having to respond to the unexpected, whether it be shepherds being surprised by angels, or Joseph’s woeful inability to book a room in Bethlehem. The whole thing is a bit of a mess.
And yet, even so, in the midst of the messiness and disruption of lives, the Word became flesh. God speaks to us as one who is with us and alongside us, as one who shares in our vulnerability, a vulnerability which we see so beautifully displayed in this gentle image above the High Altar.
Behold the beauty of the Lord. Ponder the meaning of that phrase - but also remember its promise. To rejoice in the Word made Flesh means that we have the assurance and the hope that one day soon we will be able to delight in each other’s presence again - to reach out to one another, to embrace one another, to see each other face to face.