Wednesday, 08 December 2021

Cathedral art shines light on circle of life

ONE of the challenges I set myself each year is to find a relevant image to go on

ONE of the challenges I set myself each year is to find a relevant image to go on the Christmas card I send out.

This year’s search was comparatively easy since, as the acting Bishop of Oxford, I looked afresh at the riches of the art in our cathedral at Christ Church — and I was not disappointed.

One of my problems with many of the images of Jesus as a baby is that he is given a toddler’s face or even that of a young child. It’s almost as if the painter or the sculptor has not quite been able to bring themselves to believe that Jesus was a real baby who cried when he was hungry, kept his parents up at night and wet his nappy like any other child.

Being much loved and being divine did not stop him developing in the ways that all of us have done.

But in a sculpture, which you can see in the cathedral, it seems to me that the artist has not fallen into the trap of thinking of Jesus as someone other than he was.

I love the way that Jesus’ arms circle round his head. Judging by my own grandchildren, babies do manage to get themselves into pretty extraordinary positions when they are asleep and this child is no exception.

But for me there is more to it than that. Somehow the encircling arms speak of the way in which Jesus’ love encompasses the whole world.

Recent events may make it difficult to believe that love is going to have the final say when we see so much evil and suffering around us, but that is the glorious hope of this and every Christmas.

But it only exists as a hope when linked to Jesus personal journey from birth to death — from the stable at Bethlehem to the Cross outside Jerusalem.

As St John puts it so clearly: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16.)

So where is that note of future pain struck in this crib scene? Well, not, I think, in the baby himself. There is something that is just immensely peaceful about him but if you go to the cathedral you will see that the figure of Mary standing alongside the manger does have a note of sadness in her though her gaze, like that of many a mother, is one of intense love.

But my attention when I was there was drawn to the crib the baby is lying in. The sculptor, Rita Phillips, has used a quern, an instrument used for producing flour.

One commentator has written this about it: “Jesus lies in the cavity where the grain would be placed for grinding, alluding to the crucifixion, in which Jesus was crushed to death but after which he became the Bread of Life that we enjoy today.”

Death and life, suffering and love, birth and crucifixion — all are intertwined in this sculpture.

If you have not seen it yet, can I encourage you to pay a visit to the cathedral and to take a good look?

And may this Christmas and New Year be a blessing to you in every way.

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