This is one of my favorite photos of madonna and child carvings in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is the last one of this series of Advent and Christmastide meditations on the madonna and child art in their collections. It has been a wonderful experience to meditate on them with you these past many weeks. Most will receive this post from the automatic feeds* of the web site on the Feat of the Epiphany (Monday) and so I use this image for its transitional properties of both madonna a child sculpture and invading bright light.
In this image is one of iconography’s most common and least known elements of symbology. In iconography, images of Jesus with an exposed foot is a symbolic representation of vulnerability. The sole of one’s foot is soft. If the sole of the foot is punctured, its contact with earth makes it vulnerable to infection. In German concentration camps there was a common saying “Death Begins with the shoes.” But it began without them even faster.
“And do not think that shoes form a factor of secondary importance in the life of the Lager. Death begins with the shoes; for most of us, they show themselves to be instruments of torture, which after a few hours of marching cause painful sores which become fatally infected. Whoever has them is forced to walk as if he was dragging a convict’s chain […]; he arrives last everywhere, and everywhere he receives blows. He cannot escape if they run after him; his feet swell and the more they swell, the more the friction with the wood and the cloth of the shoes becomes insupportable. Then only the hospital is left: but to enter the hospital with a diagnosis of ‘dicke Füße’ (swollen feet) is extremely dangerous, because it is well known to all, and especially to the SS, that here there is no cure for that complaint.”
(Primo Levi: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) [first published as If This Is a Man], pp. 34–35.)
And we know that the sole of the foot is very sensitive. The slightest touch can send shivers. Dogs are so sensitive about their paws that they are biologically programmed to jerk them away from the slightest touch from even the most devoted human friend. It is because millions of years has taught them that their ability or inability to walk on their paws and run on them is the difference between survival and death.
A foot massage is one of the world’s great pleasures and an ingrown toenail one of its great agonies.
So iconography has used the foot to symbolize vulnerability. In the transfiguration icon, John’s foot is exposed with a dangling sandal as is Jesus’ foot in many madonna and child icons. Nails would one day pierce them. Jesus’s final act with his friends is to wash their feet. Jesus’s feet are washed and massaged with oil by a woman seeking connection.
This icon gives me the permission to ask myself, on the edge of the Epiphany season, where the invasion of Jesus’ love experienced by me in the presence of other humans is also the occasion of vulnerability. I have known people who find ways to isolate themselves from people so that they will not experience vulnerability. I can see the pain in their faces – an ancient pain of betrayal or harm done which they have consciously or subconsciously determined will never happen again. And I get that. The evils people can exact on each other make isolation and self-protection tempting. Exposing oneself’s tender heart or tender soul or tender sole is hard. It takes courage and it takes more courage the more one has been manipulated, used, abused and harmed by the narcism of others.
Here Mary holds Jesus’ little foot as the light crashes in from the side. Epiphany invades as a mother holds the tender little foot of God. She keeps it warm. She feels its moisture and its softness. I wonder if she wonders. We know she would have seen crucifixions along the roads as she travelled them in her girlhood. We know she is aware that this child is different. We can assume she has seen how corroded the clergy can become with too much obeisance. I wonder if she wondered if these little feet would one day be pierced.
And yet, as one friend of mine recently said to me “It takes tremendous courage to be true and to step into changes in truth.” And it is true. It takes courage to live. It takes tremendous courage to live with integrity and vulnerability. People with power will sometimes use it to bless. Most will use it to set their own stage. But we must, we humans, move forward with each step in our courage, knowing that this Epiphany light will sustain us and light the path as we march forward. Death may begin with shoes. But life begins when we take them off and let God lead the way. The feel of grass under my feet is every bit as much a sacrament as any churchy ceremony.
We wait for the light and we walk. And God makes all things well, somehow.