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oil on canvas
Sir John Everett Millais
John Christman, SSS
How do you envision the Holy Family? There are so many idyllic Renaissance paintings of the nativity we see this time of the year that it may be difficult to imagine the Holy Family otherwise. And we might be excused for our penchant for the sentimental at Christmas time. But how often do you picture the Holy Family beyond the context of Christmas? What was their life like after that momentous birth?
The journey from sentimentality to everyday reality was something that captivated John Everett Millais. He observed the finest details of the world around him and sought to represent them on his canvases. Rather than paint a scene of the Holy Family bathed in the soft glow of moonlight as they cradled their newborn child, he painted a scene of everyday life in a carpenter’s shop. Here we encounter Joseph at work at his carpenter’s table, wood shavings strewn across the floor. The whole family is engaged in this work. We see Joseph, Mary, Jesus, Saint Ann, a young John the Baptist and even another young carpenter. Millais depicts a moment when the work has temporarily come to a halt. The young Jesus, still learning his way as a carpenter, has injured his hand. All eyes converge upon him as he lifts his hand to show his wound. Mary and Joseph both lovingly attend to their son. Joseph carefully assesses the injury, while Mary kneels to comfort Jesus. For his part, Jesus looks pensive.
In its day this painting created quite a stir, as it broke with classical depictions of the Holy Family and instead attempted to portray them as everyday people of the time who supported themselves by physical labor. This realism and attentiveness to exacting detail was jarring for many art critics who preferred more idealistic representations of religious subjects. This may come as a surprise to our sensibilities, for despite its realism, the painting appears quite reverential and symbolic to modern eyes. Mary dressed in blue with her head covered, Saint Ann in red, and John the Baptist already in camel hair and carrying water, all situate the scene within a traditional symbolic framework. Of course, the central symbol of the painting is Jesus’ wounded hand. This is clearly a foreshadowing of his crucifixion, with Joseph’s nearly held tool evoking a large nail, and the blood from the wound falling upon Jesus’ foot. The lovely verdant fields and trees soaked in sunlight contrasts with this somber reminder. What are we to make of all this?
“The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men (and women) of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ” (GS 1). These famous words began that monumental document of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et spes. What do these words point to in relation to Millais’ impressive painting? First, they resonate well with Millais’ choice to depict the Holy Family as everyday people like you and me. He didn’t portray this family using classical Greek ideas of human perfection, but rather used real models in all their uniqueness. Therefore, he makes a connection between “the people of his age” and not only “the followers of Christ” but Jesus and his family as well.
The second point is equally important. Millais’ painting and these words from Gaudium et spes draw attention to the reality that we often have to hold differing thoughts, emotions, and experiences together. Rarely do we experience something in a clear and one-dimensional way, such as pure joy or unencumbered grief. Instead, within most of our experiences, there are multiple thoughts and emotions, sometimes even contradictory ones. In a great moment of joy there may be some sadness, knowing that it will pass. In an experience of loss there may be some relief that a difficulty has ended. These are not judgements of right or wrong. Instead, simply an acknowledgment that our experiences are often complex, and we hold many things together. Sometimes we allow something we perceive as negative to overshadow an entire experience, when it’s just one part. Millais’ painting reminds us not to be so categorical, to hold things together. It’s not just the two poles of the joy of the nativity and the suffering of Jesus’ passion and death. There’s a lot in the middle, and it’s often a mixture. In this image, though Jesus is wounded, he is surrounded by love and concern. Perhaps he has a flash of awareness of his possible future, but also has much to learn and experience, not the least of which is carpentry. All will unfold in due time. But in this instance, woundedness, love, and healing are all happening at once, as is so often the case.
By Mary Ann McGill Muller
Divine breath blown over primordial land,
Creator stooped down to man
Oh, how ages past cried for relief
From selfish, vain belief
Of mankind’s sinful ways
And how man wept and bled and fought
One to another for naught
Millenniums past stand aghast
Of what Eden became from Adam’s fall.
So, God waited
Till that perfect night
He filled with light
From a tiny cave,
Twin being grew
The face of what God made.
Who would have thought
That manna from the desert would be used
Again, as miracle
This time unseen
In unleavened bread
Glimpse of heaven
Raised above our head
Behold! He stands
As we knock on heaven’s door.
Reason, faith collide
At last — that is what abides,
His body hidden
Gerald W. Schlabach
Liturgical Press Academic
Schlabach’s thesis is that if the Catholic Church were to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, it would be a peace, shalom, Church. Schlabach comes from a Mennonite background. While studying at Notre Dame and working with many Catholic peace groups, he became a Catholic. He states that he used to think of himself as a Catholic Mennonite, he now considers himself a Mennonite Catholic. He has worked with peace groups in different parts of the world for over thirty-five years. His whole life has been a study and work for peace. Because of this, his active nonviolence, and his clear explanations, it is a powerful book.
The chapters are organized around the themes in the title. “Pilgrim” is a very important concept. He says that “too often we are looking backwards rather than forward.” As a global Church, we are living in a diaspora; we are never at home; we are never finished; we are never going to get it exactly right. This is a great point to ponder and live with, though we may not be accustomed to it. Think how often the institutional Church or segments within the Church think they are the in group, while the rest are the out group. The first part of this book challenges us to “Become Catholic again for the first time.”
The author describes “becoming” as social transformation. At some level “Church” means working together for peace. He explains that shalom includes health, wholeness, true prosperity, right social relationships, and interdependent human relationship. He quotes Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio, that the new word for peace is development, “If you want peace, work for justice.” He then adds that “in that sense peace is entirely compatible with conflict.”
The most important aspect of working for peace involves more than nonviolence. It involves “active nonviolence.” This is the high point of the book. Nonviolence has not gotten us very far. Nonviolence is more than “don’t do this, don’t do that.” Active nonviolence is going to involve many types of suffering. Schlabach writes that “Jesus Christ has shown that non-violent suffering love is the strongest power of the universe.” Schlabach quotes often from the Vatican and Mennonite Conference final report, “Called Together to be Peacemakers” (1998-2003), 2004. “Active non-violence is morally normative for all Christians.” Today, the Just War theory is going the way of Capital Punishment. They were needed at one time (maybe) but are in their last throes.
Marie Vianney Bilgrien, SSND
El Paso, TX