Rebecca Catford: December 2018
In the week before Christmas I was working for two days at Methodist Church House. A recent tradition at Church House is the use of images from the Methodist Church Modern Art Collection in a series of early morning meditations in the Chapel. On the day I joined worship the choice of painting was the 'Dalit Madonna' by the Indian artist, Jyoti Sahi, one of my favourite paintings — not least because I heard Sahi speak a number of years ago.
It feels like a special gift being reacquainted with something you know well through the eyes and insights of another. There is always something more to see as you sit and look and take time to contemplate its meaning. The Christmas story itself, of course, is like that: if we take time with it; if we continue to look and reflect, and share it in the compamy of others, there will always be new treasures to find. But Jyoti Sahi's picture has a special resonance for me this year. At its heart, the picture is in some ways quite traditional — a representation of Mary and her new born child, Jesus. Yet there are some distinctive elements to the picture. The way her body encircles the child reminds us of a love that is tender, compassionate and nurturing. The image echoes the grinding stones used to make bread in many Indian homes; a large fixed stone on the outside and a smaller baby stone on the inside which moves against the outer stone to grind the grain. It is a reminder that the love between mother and child will be accompanied by suffering — something which the gospel story draws attention to when Jesus is presented in the Temple and Simeon prophesises that a sword of suffering will pierce Mary's soul (Luke 2: 35). It is something emphasised in the title of the piece — she is the 'Dalit' Madonna, literally the 'broken' Madonna, although there is also a strong association with those traditionally thought of as being from a lower caste who are deemed, 'untouchable'.
But another element of the picture and of the Christmas story has resonated with me particularly powerfully this Christmas. As you may know, my wife and I spent a week in Ethiopia in November with the charity, Compassion. We visited a number of places including a pre and post natal project in a town called Nazaret, some two hours from Addis Ababa. It was a stark reminder of just how fragile and vulnerable life is particularly in poorer communities. I have also been reminded in the last week of how thin the veil is between life and death, visiting an old, elderly friend, moving towards death with 'one foot in paradise', as he described himself. One of the great mysteries of the incarnation — literally God taking on flesh — is its sheer fragility and vulnerability. God becomes like us in the fragility and vulnerability of birth, life, and death. Yet in the midst of life and death, 'He became what we are that we might become what he is,' (Athanasius). That for me is the miracle of Christmas.
My prayer for you is that, whether this year Christmas is a time of joy or sorrow, of celebration or fragility, that you may know in the depths of your heart the one who loves you and the whole of creation so much that he took on flesh and became one of us, who continues to journey with you.
Wishing you a peace and joy filled Christmas,
Rev Richard Andrew
Chair of the Darlington Methodist District
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Oxford Belfry, Milton Common, Thame OX9 2JW
Oxford Belfry, Milton Common, Thame OX9 2JW