By JOANNE SADLER BUTLER
This Christmas, I am meditating on what it was really like to be in Nazareth and Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. The images we are familiar with are from the Renaissance era or later — and while they were reverently done, they also were done with an eye to pleasing the man or woman who was paying for the work. Thus, we typically see a nicely dressed Virgin, an ethereal Gabriel, a well-appointed room, with (sometimes) cherubs in the background prefiguring a Disney World display. These images are soothing, but the reality was quite different.
If you want a glimpse of what life was really like back then, I suggest studying Henry Ossawa Tanner’s 1896 painting of the Annunciation, http://catholicexchange.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Advent-Annunciation.jpg. Tanner was an African-American artist (and son of a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church) from Philadelphia. While there, he had studied under Thomas Eakins (famous for his painting of a man in a scull on the Schuylkill River), but later moved to Paris and the Middle East. He produced many paintings with biblical and religious themes.
Tanner’s Annunciation fascinates me because it has the ring of truth about it. Here Mary is being awoken by the angel (her toes peep from under her plain striped robe). Her bed is in a corner alcove; her bedclothes are unadorned. The floor of her home is made from ordinary stone with an unremarkable Middle-Eastern style rug on it. The walls are plaster, worn and colored by smoke in some spots. A tiny nightlight oil lamp burns on a shelf behind Mary — in contrast to the powerful beam of light that fills the room and captures Mary’s attention. (Tanner was acquainted with electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla, which may explain Tanner’s use of the light beam to portray the Angel Gabriel.)
Mary herself looks like a teenaged Middle-Eastern woman — which is what she was, with an olive complexion and dark hair. To my mind Tanner has captured her in the critical moment when she was about to say yes. Looking at her, I imagine that she is at the point of nodding her assent.
And what of the angel? There is nothing ethereal (or effeminate, for that matter) about this being. The angel here is a manifestation of the Old Testament God, the pillar of light that God used to guide the people of Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 13:21). Since the Exodus pillar of light appeared at night, perhaps Tanner is implying the Annunciation took place at night as well.
By this pillar of light in Mary’s humble room, we can see the Old and New Testaments begin to come together. The God of the Old Testament, God the Father, announces the coming of His Son, via the Holy Spirit, in a pillar of light.
Meanwhile, what was going on outside of Mary’s house?
Herod “the Great” was rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, and doing so lavishly. This same Herod would order the killing of the innocents after Jesus’ birth. Later, his son Herod Antipas ordered the killing of John the Baptist and gave Jesus over to Pontius Pilate for execution.
Herod Antipas also rebuilt a Galilee lakeside town, Sepphoris, renaming it “Autocratoris” for the Roman emperor of the day. Herod wanted to have a city in his territory — and away from Jerusalem — whereby his Roman overseers could relax and be entertained. Thus, Sepphoris had a cosmopolitan culture replete with beautiful buildings, baths, and mosaics, plus a temple to the Roman gods. It probably had great shopping too.
Because Sepphoris was just north of (ordinary small town) Nazareth, perhaps Mary and Jesus had stood on a local hilltop to view the glitter and glamour of Herod’s handiwork just up the lake. Imagine that: the True God looking upon a work dedicated to a false god.
Returning to Tanner’s painting, it reminds us that the Annunciation and the Incarnation were humble events, in humble circumstances, occurring side-by-side with the pomp and great wealth of the Herods.
But what has endured? Herod the Great’s temple was destroyed only a few years after the crucifixion of Christ. By the 19th century, Sepphoris was a village of stone and mud, its treasures buried in the dirt for archeologists to discover.
Jesus Christ — born in Bethlehem and raised in little Nazareth. Jesus Christ — the Lord, the Alpha and Omega. He has endured and will endure throughout the ages.
So ask yourself: Do you want have a simple Christmas, one that reflects the lives of Jesus, Mary and Joseph — or a Herod-style holiday, one that’s all about bigger and better material possessions? If we are truly Christians, the answer should be obvious.