While searching my computer files for photos, I came across a painting I’d encountered nine years ago. Though this style of artwork isn’t normally among my favorites, the story behind this particular image touched my heart. I was introduced to this painting by a dear friend, Father Ludger Moliter. A decade ago, when my husband and I visited his Croatian cousin who served as a priest in Germany, Stjepan happily arranged a luncheon for us with his friend. Ludger had ties to Chicago because he’d participated in a study of parish life between his diocese and the Archdiocese of Chicago. Mike’s cousin rightly determined that we and Ludger would have a good deal to talk about and we became fast friends. We’ve been in touch ever since. Ludger reads these daily reflections and shares his thoughts regarding current events and his favorite homilies. In the midst of all of this, Ludger shared this painting and highlights from the homily which it inspired…
I’m drawn to the details of Ludger’s message and this painting because both offer fitting inspiration as we embrace New Year 2021. The artwork is a fifteenth century effort by Konrad von Soest entitled Christi Geburt or Birth of Christ. It depicts Mary holding the newborn Jesus. Mary is completely enamored by her child. At the same time, Joseph bends over a small fire on the floor. The poor man’s cheeks are puffed up to capacity as he prepares to fan the fire’s flames with his breath. Honestly, though this scene appears almost comical in the painting, it depicts the significance of Joseph’s efforts quite beautifully. If Joseph hadn’t seen to it that Jesus was kept warm, he and Mary might not have had to worry about Herod’s eventual threats. If little Jesus hadn’t been protected from the night’s cold, he might not have survived his birth day, much less the days and years which followed. Ludger’s homily explained that, yes, we need to adore and to appreciate God’s presence among us and God’s gifts. At the same time, however, Ludger added that we must also appreciate our responsibility to do what needs to be done to care for one another. Like Joseph, it’s up to us to keep the fire burning for those we’ve been given to love.
Ludger’s words offered a vivid reminder of the realities of Jesus’ birth. Though the crèches in our churches and homes indicate otherwise, there wasn’t much beauty or comfort to be found in overcrowded Bethlehem. Mary’s impending delivery likely left the preparation of their quarters entirely to Joseph. Imagine the poor man running between Mary and the innkeeper as he attempted to secure what they needed. Imagine Joseph spreading a blanket and perhaps his own cloak to fashion a bed for Mary. Imagine Joseph searching for the fabric Mary had packed to swaddle their baby upon his arrival. Imagine Joseph glancing at Mary every few seconds, watching as her labor progressed and wondering if he was prepared to help her to give birth. And, after all of this, imagine Joseph blowing on that fire with all of his might to keep Mary and Jesus warm. That hectic Christmas night began a lifetime of moments of awe and fire-stoking for both Mary and Joseph. All the while, their love for Jesus never wavered just as the demands of living out that love also never wavered.
As we’ve discovered during Year 2020 and many years prior, the same is true for all of us who do our best to love God and those God has given us to love. The Magi, whom we celebrate today, offered an amazing example of this commitment. They gambled everything to follow that unique star because the possibility of encountering the king they sought was worth their effort. Though these astrologers eventually fell at Jesus’ feet, they didn’t leave their troubles there. To spread the news of whom they’d found, the Magi evaded Herod who promised to rid the world of this child-opponent. Still, when the Magi escaped Herod, they didn’t escape the lengthy journey back to their homes or the risky business of sharing news of this new king with their contemporaries. The scriptures tell us that those who came afterward to share Jesus’ news had a tough time as well. Each one who embraced Jesus’ message also embraced the trials and tribulations that came with living out that message of love in a hostile world.
I’m thrilled that I once again found the painting which Father Ludger cited so many years ago because it offers fitting inspiration as we embrace the hope and challenges of New Year 2021. This quaint work reminds us all that we need to take on both Mary’s and Joseph’s roles as von Soest depicts them. Like Mary, we need to acknowledge the gift of God in our lives. What generous love it is that compels God to care for us so deeply! Like Joseph, that same love fills us up and compels us to love one another with as much of God’s generosity and depth as we can muster in the moments at hand. Yes, as my dear friend Ludger observed, every attempt to love one another draws us close to the fire, where we puff up our cheeks and keep the fire of love burning as only we can. Just as Mary’s and Joseph’s efforts sustained Jesus, our efforts will sustain our sisters and brothers this new year and always!
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