(author’s note to the reader: For the next two weeks, as Advent undulates into the Great Feast of Christmas’ twelve days, I will be using a collection images of Mary and Jesus – photos I took while on study leave recently in New York to design a school for Bishops which will, perhaps, teach effective leadership in stewardship and membership growth. These are images of the Mother and Child in wood, marble and ivory from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan and they each have something the artist was hoping to convey to the viewer. That may or may not be what I see or what you see, but I am sure they were icons meant to inspire devotion and thought about this relationship; and the many metaphors it contains for our own understanding of the incarnation of God in Jesus.)
This medieval carving of the madonna and child has Jesus as a playful thing. The golden sphere he holds could just as easily represent his dominion over playing with a ball on Christmas morning rather than its classic representation of the dominion over the world. Here, Jesus smiles and seems nearly to make comment on what he has come to know and be. This is the face of a knowing child. It is not quite concern but has concern in it. His face is not quite of authority but has that too. It is the face of one who knows the situation into which he has been born. It is an “ancient of days” face. It reminds me of David, my godson, in his first few years. It is the face of concern, mischeviousness and complete control over the situation.
Belief has its ups and downs for anyone with the courage to admit it. I am sure enough about what I believe to be both a Christian and a priest; and yet I am aware that I am unsure about a lot. I think one of the great evils of the church (and there are many, I have come to learn over the decades) is that too many, are too sure, of too much. Exhibit A: the crusades. Exhibit B: The inquisition. Exhibit C: the impostors we sometimes elect, ordain and even consecrate. We can be very silly, we Christians. Some of our clergy and bishops are good, kind, brilliant and effective.We delude ourselves if we believe that some of our clergy and bishops are not, inevitably, frauds. Our Episcopal Church is weak and imploding because we sometimes confuse charm and compliments with effective leadership. And because we do not much pray, detach and discern. The good ones are so easy to see. The funny thing is that the bad ones think we cannot see them.
This is the face of a child who knows that too. This is the face of a God-made-flesh child who knows that the church will be, perhaps, even more disappointing than the pagans we so arogantly think He came to save. But this is the face of wisdom as well. It is an old face and the outward sign of an ancient soul. His rosy cheeks, paired with his determined eyes are that not just of a child, but of a Savior with a job ahead of him. His soft, pudgy, moist feet are nestled in the warm folds of Mary’s cloak and wedged between her thighs. His feet are warm and soft and have yet thirty years before they will feel the clang of steel on steel.