Georges de la Tour (1593-1652)
Georges de la Tour’s painting calls me to a profound stillness before his riveting portrayal of the stark contrast between the darkness and the light. The darkness is so deep. The light is so bright. And while there is some debate as to whether or not the artist was actually depicting the Christ child with his mother and St. Anne or simply a French village birth, we certainly can see the gospel story of Christ’s birth imaged in this intense focus on darkness and light.
There is so much darkness in our world today as we approach the holy season of Christmas. Not just the darkness of the shortened days huddled around the winter solstice, but a deeper darkness. Wars continue to rage across the globe. Illness and financial worries darken many of our personal lives. Poverty persists behind the bright rich facades of so many cities.
I recently read the 2012 National Book Award for nonfiction, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. It’s a book that tells the story of teen-age Abdul and his family and neighbors, and it powerfully depicts the darkness of life in Annawadi, a wretched slum in the shadow of the airport in Mumbai, India. Abdul’s “job” is to collect, sort, and sell the recyclable garbage scraps thrown out by the airport and the luxurious airport hotels. Alongside these hotels, flashy billboards advertise elegant tiles that promise to be “beautiful forever” for those who can afford them. Abdul’s mother longs to have some of these tiles for her tiny slum shack. Instead, she daily sweeps her uneven stone floor, not-so-beautiful, knowing that, no matter how hard she works, she never can sweep away all the forever grime that seeps into the lives of her family. Life is dark and difficult and ever so precarious for the citizens of Annawadi. As it is for so many who live in the slums of big cities around our world.
As it was in that murky stable so long ago when Mary cradled the infant Christ and watched with wonder as Light shone into the gloomy darkness of her world. Shone and continues to shine, as it shines so vividly in de la Tour’s beautiful painting of the newborn. Shines in the love we share with each other in these holy days of Advent and Christmas. Shines in the joy and hope that Christmas renews in our lives. Shines in every act of kindness, in every step towards justice for which we work and pray. Shines and points the way to a world in which Abdul will no longer awaken each day to the dark bleakness of his poverty.
Christmas lights cannot hide the darkness lurking behind all the “beautiful forevers” of our world. Christmas carols cannot muffle the anguished sighs of Abdul and those like him around the world. But neither can all this darkness extinguish the Light that we celebrate with our Christmas lights and carols. For “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).
It can be so disheartening to look across our broken world and see all the dark shadows that cloud so many lives. We know we won’t be able to right all the wrongs or cure all the maladies. But maybe we can learn anew to focus on the Light that shone in Bethlehem’s stable long ago. On the Light that de la Tour so hauntingly portrays. On St. John’s sure promise that darkness will not overcome that Light. And as we focus on that Light and celebrate all that Christmas means in our lives and in our world, maybe we can once again bring to the manger the gift of ourselves and offer “our hearts and minds as channels of the Light that wants to flow through every available opening” (from Robert Corin Morris’ Wrestling with Grace).