Monday, December 19, 2011

Happy Christmas, with help from Mr Blake...


One of my favourite books of the year was Christopher Rowland's 'Blake and the Bible'. It is a wonderful exploration of how this most eccentric of geniuses interpreted the Bible and in so doing was inspired in the matter of his art. One of his central convictions was that we are all participators in God's image and that this participation extends to all things for 'everything that lives is holy'. If I had one sentence to encapsulate my own credo that would be it!

In the course of the book, Rowland explores Blake's strange painting of the Nativity (attached here).

William Blake imagined that the Holy Family were both Mary & Joseph and Elizabeth & Zacharias and their off-spring: Jesus and his cousin, John.

In this, Blake's unique depiction of the Nativity, the sceptical Zacharias is absent, but all the others are present. Zacharias is probably outside, smoking a fag, and wondering what all the fuss is supposed to be about (or wondering in disbelief, not again, not again)!

Mary lays in a swoon, in the arms of Joseph, Elizabeth holds out her hands to greet a luminous, fully conscious Christ child, as her son, Jesus' prophetic forerunner, John sits robustly watching, attending in her lap.

Through the window, shines a star/cross like light, heralding his presence and symbolising that eternity breaks into time; and, on that symbol, Christ is crucified into resurrection.

It is a deeply mysterious painting that has taxed the ingenuity of interpreters but one thing for me is resolutely clear: for Blake, Mary has given birth to the cosmic Christ, that indwells in her, indwells in all of us, and is a bond of peace. He steps between two women, cousins, and is part of and welcomed by both. But giving birth to Christ and welcoming him are both deeply natural and yet something that must be strived for. Mary swoons, Elizabeth stretches, Christ dances in between.

All is grace and yet, paradoxically, something must be worked for - Jerusalem is built from mental fight.

It is undoubtedly curious to think of Christmas as a time of struggle, except possibly against that additional mince pie and the second turkey sandwich, but it is vividly there in the narrative.

Mary is cast into suspicion of pre-marital sex. Joseph has to wrestle between love and propriety, his own and his community's. The whole country is thrown into change in order that an oppressive imperial power assess tax. Joseph and Mary, in the last depths of pregnancy, have to find somewhere to rest, when everything is taken, and end up in a stable (or cave). The three wise men have to journey far into uncertainty. It is a birth that triggers a massacre and precipitates the Holy family's flight into refugee status!

You can read these as a parable on the costliness of discipleship, of bearing truth into the world and its unwillingness to pay heed (and how many examples of this have we seen this year as security forces beat and kill unarmed protesters seeking after truth and a decent political order).

You can read these esoterically, as Blake would, as exterior signs of the internal struggle each individual must partake in to be able and ready to receive truth - as a wise person once said as well as understanding truth, we must be ready and able to withstand it.

Either way Blake's haunting painting both testifies to the difficulty of receiving truth and affirms yet more insistently its ever-present offer.

In spite of every obstacle a world can cast up, Christ still dances, born of each of us and received by each of us. I find it a deeply hopeful and realistic picture.

But back to turkey sandwiches (or alternative celebratory happenings), may I wish you a very happy Christmas and a blessed New Year - and may all our strivings be towards the building up of Jerusalem (and as Mr Blake would say what that looks like will differ depending on each individual's sight - I expect God can accommodate a multitude of visions, religious people and dictators not withstanding)!!!

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