There is a painting by the Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder called The Numbering in Bethlehem. It is typical of Bruegel’s work – the picture is full of people. The scene depicts the census which took place in Bethlehem at the time when Jesus was born. In one corner, there is a frozen pond on which children are playing. A man is fishing in a hole in the ice. In the background a house is being built. A long queue of people are lined up to be enrolled and to pay taxes. People are tending their pigs and hens. Life goes on in a flurry of activity. No one notices the figure on the donkey or the man walking beside her. In fact, only the tell-tale carpenter’s saw over Joseph’s shoulder gives him away. You really have to search for them in the crowd. Unless you know what to look for, you would probably miss them. Certainly, none of the people in the painting are taking any notice of Joseph and Mary, still less the unborn Son of God within her. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, there were many in Bethlehem that first Christmas who had no idea that something very special was about to happen.
This painting parallels many people’s lives today. They miss Christmas. Caught up in a society which has largely forgotten about Jesus, there are many who will again ‘celebrate’ Christmas this December without a thought for the Saviour whose birth we commemorate. And yet … recognising what God has done for us all in sending his Son to be born amongst us that first Christmas has the power to transform our lives for the better. So … in all the hustle and bustle that Christmas has become today … take a few moments to ponder the fact that the One whose birth we celebrate at Christmas is none other than ‘Emmanuel – God with us!’ and that his ‘given name’ was ‘Jesus – because he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21,23).
This month also sees the anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, a mystic, and a pioneer of the interfaith movement. Born in France, baptized in the Church of England, raised in New York, and educated at Oakham and Cambridge, Merton lost his faith as a young man. However, a trip to Rome in 1933 led to an awakening of a more genuine faith in his heart, and he was eventually received into the Roman Catholic church in New York. Initially Merton was attracted to academic life, but he could not shake off a sense of call to a more committed life which eventually led to him becoming a Trappist monk at the Monastery of Gethsemane in Kentucky. In time Merton became one of the best known Christian writers of his day, living in seclusion in a hermitage in the Abbey grounds, where he wrote his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain – one of the great spiritual books of the 20th century. Sadly, Thomas Merton tragically died in 1968 as the result of an unfortunate accident.
In 1963 Thomas Merton wrote an essay entitled: Advent: Hope or Delusion? Although all of Merton’s work is good, this essay is a particularly good read, especially during the Advent Season. Unlike much of what’s available this time of year, Merton’s reflection is direct and substantial. His consideration of the meaning and place of the season of Advent is refreshingly insightful. Here is just one quote: ‘In Advent we celebrate the coming and indeed the presence of Christ in our world. We witness to His presence even in the midst of all its inscrutable problems and tragedies. Our Advent faith is not an escape from the world to a misty realm of slogans and comforts which declare our problems to be unreal, our tragedies inexistent … Our task is to seek and find Christ in our world as it is, and not as it might be. The fact that the world is other than it might be does not alter the truth that Christ is present in it and that His plan has been neither frustrated nor changed: indeed, all will be done according to His will. Our Advent is a celebration of this hope.’
Perhaps this Christmas, like Thomas Merton and countless millions of others, we too will ‘find’ Jesus Christ for ourselves – discover (or rediscover) the wonderful truth of the One born among us who is both ‘Emmanuel – God with us!’ and ‘Jesus – because he will save his people from their sins’ in personal experience!