Representing Advent and Christmas

I am by no means an artist. In fact it’s only in the past number of months that I’ve begun putting pencil to paper – that I’ve begun taking baby steps in trying to understand how to use shading, lines and different pencils (2B 4b HB 6H) in service of an idea or image. And aside from being a total novice, I don’t exactly have a lot of time on my hands for drawing. Though I do find it a soul-nourishing way to make myself slow down for a moment, to reflect on life and its meaning.

Earlier this Fall the Presbyterian Record opened its annual art competition for the December issue of the magazine. I took the competition (and the reality of a deadline!) as a source of motivation to create something. It was an opportunity to think about how I would represent some aspect of Christmas. The end result is the pencil drawing, below, which I have also put through a “sepia” filter in iPhoto.

pensive smallerLike many within the church I have a kind of love-hate relationship with Christmas. On the one hand I have beautiful childhood memories of Christmas – of trees and lights and family celebrations. And even today I have a kind of delight  in aspects of the season. And yet beneath these positive aspects of memory and celebration is a deep frustration with the way Christmas (Advent is essentially bypassed!) has become a saccharine and tinsel-strewn affair of little or no substance. Worse, perhaps, the church often caters to this indulgent and superficial approach to the season, which means that our representation and celebration of Christmas is not as rich as it could and should be.

In submitting my own drawing to The Record, I had no sense this was a great piece of art or that it had any chance of making the cover of the magazine. It’s not, and it didn’t! The piece absolutely belongs in the small little corner they found for it toward the back pages.

But my little piece was an attempt to capture both the beauty and ambiguity of Advent and Christmas. As I think about my own drawing, which I call “Pensive”, words of Barry Corey (president of Biola University) get at what it is all about:

Advent accepts the tension of the already and the not yet. It welcomes waiting. It is merriment and melancholy together, beauty so sublime that, like the best art, it simultaneously comforts and rocks us to the core.

In my image, a contemporary Mary is great with child – and her hopefulness is expressed in lines of delight that extend into a future that she imagines for herself and her child. But in the same moment of her hope there is the tension and struggle and difficulty of life as this is represented in the dead branch and the cross that is suspended over all of life. Of course the cross is most obviously that of her son, who will walk the path of suffering service with an honest and difficult obedience.

The words of Simeon to Mary come to mind: “Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also..” The cross of the Son becomes the cross of the mother, also. There is glory here, and joy. There is also ambiguity and foreboding.

So there really is a place for images of comfort and peace in almost every season, but it seems that we are inundated (by church and culture and marketers) by images of superficial comfort and peace in this season. These images not drive us back to the truth of our own experience – nor do they capture the complexity and struggle embodied in the narrative of Christmas. So, I guess this drawing and this blog post have a simple intent in the end: a plea for a little more honesty in how we represent and live this season. A plea that needs an answer in my own life, as much as in any one else’s.


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