IT IS such a deceptively simple phrase — God with us, Emmanuel — yet it makes theologies, philosophies, and political theories reel. He Qi’s nativity scene shows both the sweet simplicity and the dazzling complexity of what it is we celebrate at Christmas.
At the heart of the picture are the Virgin and Child, in lovely pastel colours, their heads together in the idyllic pose of a mother holding her beloved firstborn. For the moment, Mary is unconscious of the line that slices between her and the baby, the sword that will pierce her heart; for the moment, the apple is just a bright and wholesome toy, but it echoes back to the garden of Eden.
The geometric lines create a sense of turbulence as worlds collide around this birth. Joseph plants his strong foot firmly on the platform where the Mother and Child sit, and holds his lantern up watchfully; he will do all he can to protect his little family from the intersecting currents that swirl around.
Some of the lines seem to be creating waves of joy: the sheep, for example, seem to be dancing to a music that only they can hear, while the shepherds are caught up in the turbulence created by the angel.
The slats and lines in the background of the picture make it look almost as if this is a windmill rather than a stable, as though the shelter where the family crouch is about to start wheeling and turning around the child, who simply sits in his mother’s arms, accepting what is to come.
THIS one act of God redefines so much. It redefines God. The one who is not an object in the universe but its source and sustainer enters into creation and becomes part of it. God who is the unmoved mover, the only being who exists so absolutely that there is no need to seek a prior cause; God who is, by definition, beyond human knowledge, comes to be God with us, Emmanuel.
This act of God redefines power. It takes all the might of the creator of the universe to enter into creation and become the opposite of God. It takes shocking force to absorb hatred and violence and death and turn them into love, peace, and life.
It lays down a challenge to all other power structures: will they measure up? It is an act of such wild rationality, to show human beings that they both are and are not the centre of the universe.
They always thought that the universe revolved around them, and they are right — in so far as they are prepared to find themselves redefined in Emmanuel, God with us. The universe revolves around this human being, and those who find themselves in him by giving themselves up, to him, and to each other.
HE QI’s nativity scene is refracted through a prismatic mirror, warning us of all that is to come. The Roman Empire has its own world to protect, where might is right. Soon, Herod will advance to defend his throne by slaughter. The religious world has its own mirror, which shows the Mother and Child in a dubious light.
This is not how God behaves. Soon, the teachers and priests will move in and point out how little Emmanuel knows about God’s real nature. The shepherds will go home, but others will come, hoping to find health, wealth, and happiness, telling Emmanuel what God is for, and losing interest when Emmanuel has other ideas.
So many different views of this one act, all of them seeking to make it suit their own purposes. But, for the moment, the sheep dance, the angel sings, Joseph and the donkey watch the child, and Mary cuddles him.
God is given into our hands. God with us.
THE angel is singing “Fear not.” This is still God, even if it is miraculously “God with us”. God still knows God’s business; God still knows how to be God. Nothing that will happen as God lives with us will make God’s nature change. God will remain loving, creative, living, renewing through all of life and into death; so that we can be sure that God is with us, always, everywhere, bringing new life, new hope, new possibilities.
God with us means that our possibilities, our hopes and fears, are not the limits of what can be. God redefines what is possible, as only God who makes all possibilities can. If God is with us, then so is life and hope.
Perhaps the strange lines that intersect across He Qi’s nativity scene are the signs of the movement of God, restoring the world.
For reflection or discussion
What places and situations make it hardest to believe that God is with us?
Do you think we have really allowed the incarnation to define God for us, or are we still bringing an idea of God into our faith from somewhere else?
Come, Holy Spirit, and open our eyes to the wonder of Emmanuel, the Father’s gift of Jesus Christ, our saviour and our Lord. Amen.
The text is from The Art of Advent: A painting a day from Advent to Epiphany (SPCK Publishing, 2018, £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9)).