ADVENT 3 - SAW THE
The second verse of our Advent theme song, “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly,” begins:
Shepherds keeping Vigil till the morning new
Saw the glory, Heard the story, Tidings of a gospel true.
A couple of weeks ago Linda and I went down to the
Gallery of Art in
J.M.W. Turner, who lived from 1775-1851, was the
artist of his era. He excelled equally
in the media of watercolor and oil, and he raised the status of
to a new level. The art establishment of
his time believed that the most worthy subjects for paintings were
history, the Bible, literature, and mythology.
Landscape was considered a lesser subject for artistic
representation. But Turner was drawn to
landscapes (no pun intended), which he sometimes combined with
biblical or literary or mythological themes.
Among the 145 paintings that we saw were “Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps,” an
oil on canvas painting completed in 1812; “The Battle of Trafalgar,” an
canvass completed in 1824; and “Temple of Poseidon,” a pencil and
piece completed in 1834.
As we walked through the exhibition and studied
paintings, I noticed two things about Turner’s landscapes.
First, almost every painting features the
interplay between light and darkness, between brilliant bursts of
muted shadows often on the periphery of the canvas.
The second thing I noticed in all the
paintings was a sense of awe or mystery or even fear created by his
of the untamed forces of nature. I later
came to find out that this sense of awe was deliberate, that Turner was
fascinated with what philosophers of his day called the Sublime, the
being dwarfed, humbled, even thunderstruck by the unrelenting power of
natural world. Turner was influenced by
the philosopher Edmund Burke, who distinguished between the Sublime and
Beautiful. The Beautiful, according to
Burke, are things that are smooth, unthreatening, and pleasurable. Fields of wildflowers or leafy trees
reflected in a tranquil pond are beautiful, but they don’t really
disturb us or
shake us or move to fear. The Sublime,
on the other hand, are huge, vast, and overpowering, such as a volcanic
eruption, a storm at sea, or a snow squall on a mountaintop. It was the Sublime which Turner sought to
portray in his paintings—a sense of the vastness and majesty and power
nature, beyond human control or comprehension.
Confronted with the Sublime humans react with shock and awe, and
terror, realizing that there is power far greater than ourselves.
In our travels Linda and I have been privileged to
many beautiful sights, but we’ve also experienced certain vistas that
only be called sublime. Standing on the
Canadian side of
The scripture says that on the night that Jesus was born, there were shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. I’ve never seen an angel, and I’ve never experienced the glory of the Lord shining in that way, but I can imagine being overwhelmed with awe and wonder and terror at such a sight. As I crept near the edge of the cliff top on Inis Mor, I was gripped with awe and wonder and terror at the same time. Some experiences are so vast and powerful that we feel small and vulnerable. Psychologists call such awesome experiences “galvanizing events” that can shake us to our very core.
The appearance of the angel and the glory of the
Lord was a
galvanizing event for the shepherds. Why
would an angel of the Lord appear to them?
What had they done to merit such a manifestation of the divine? No wonder the shepherds were terrified; they
figured this angel had appeared to announce God’s judgment upon them. After all, shepherds were considered a low
class of people, ritually impure, sinners disqualified from attending
services in the
There is something about Christmas that is more than beautiful; there is something about Christmas that is sublime. There is something about Christmas that should shake us to the core of our being. To think that the Creator of the Universe, the Maker and Keeper of heaven and earth, the One who flung the countless stars into place across the infinite vastness of space, to think that God, the Eternal, the Divine, should come to us—how could we not be filled with awe and wonder and yes, even a holy fear?
But no, we seldom feel that way at all. We have domesticated Christmas. We have turned it into Santa Claus and reindeer. We have reduced it to holiday parties and fiber-optic artificial Christmas trees and piles of brightly wrapped store-bought gifts. Christmas doesn’t terrify anyone anymore, except those who procrastinate and put off their shopping to the last minute. Walk through the stores the day before Christmas and check out the expressions of panic, even desperation, on the faces of some shoppers. Christmas may sometimes be beautiful for us, but rarely is it sublime.
December 16, 2007
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