Sunday, December 6, 2020

Advent 4B: A House in Ruins

Jesus is born in Bethlehem because Joseph was of the house and lineage of David. Bethlehem is where King David was born and grew up, so it became known as the city of David.  The idea of "house" here has to do with family, similar to the "house" reference in Luke 1:33 (He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end). In 2 Samuel 7, though, "house" really does refer to a structure. Famously, David announced that he would build God a house. Then in a conversation reminiscent of "Who's on First?" God and David have a conversation about house (building) and house (dynasty). Ultimately, of course, it is David's son Solomon who builds God a house (building). Through Joseph, Jesus is born into a family and in a structure - both the house of David and a house in Bethlehem. But what kind of house? 

When you picture a nativity scene, how do you imagine the structure? Barn, shed, lean-to, cave? It has been imagined in all those ways. Artists use the structures of their own time and place as the setting for the birth of Jesus. Which means that Martin Schongauer puts the nativity under a Gothic arch and vault (below).
Schongauer, Martin. The Nativity. c. 1470-75. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art.
Despite the variety of architectural styles, however, the artists of many historical images paint the stable, shed, cathedral, etc., as a ruin. The ruins symbolize humanity in need of redemption. The ruin is the state of the world. This child Jesus, a new thing, comes to us in the midst of life that falls apart, that decays. We may even hear an echo of Jesus' misunderstood (at the time) comment about the temple that he would rebuild in three days (John 2:19). The ruined building may also remind us of Jesus' comment that one day not one stone would be left atop another in the temple complex. (Matthew 24:2; Mark 13:2). 

Do contemporary artists include the ruined house? Does such an inclusion make the work stronger in terms of how it shares the meaning of Christ's birth? Does the ruin detract from the action of the story. Do you have a preference as to whether Jesus is born in(to) a ruin or not? It's another detail to look for on the Christmas cards you give and receive and the art that you consider this time of year. 

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