Loving humanity, starting with the smallest children

Meanings of Christmas Today we start a series of Christmas meditations. The first two are by the novelist and theologian Monica Furlong, and John Kennedy, of the Methodist Chur ch's Division of Social Responsibility.
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The Independent Online
Here are two Christmas images of families on the move, and resting awhile.

The first is gorgeous, painted in 1504. It is Lukas Cranach's Holy Family Resting on the Flight to Egypt, now in the Berlin Gemaeldegallerie. Cranach clearly wanted to show us what he could do with landscape. He is painstakingly realistic, but the ruggedmountains and conifers that Joseph looks out on are in Saxony, not in Sinai.

The waif-like Virgin is an absolute delight. Around her is a throng of playing children. Some of them are traditional putti; others are angelic young girls, mirroring the youth and innocence of Mary herself. A chubby infant Christ reaches out to join in their games. The circle of Virgin and Angels is utterly charming. It is also charmed. It is not only a resting place, but a recreation of Eden. Underfoot in the German wilderness grows a magic garden of pretty flowers, a complex pattern of Christian symbols. Here is God's creation given over to abundant life. But around it, of course, is a world organised for death, in which families flee from the murderous Herod.

The picture has a context. Some 20 years after its completion, Cranach was witness at Martin Luther's wedding to a former nun, Catherine von Bora - the three of them were co-founders of that formidable institution, the Parson's Wife. So Luther stepped inside the charmed circle depicted by Cranach - and it promptly disappeared. Happy and fortunate as his family was, Brother Martin discovered that the family is the most desperately vulnerable feature of a world organised for death - and for fami ne, pestilence and war. For the Blessed Virgin is not just a pretty face; She is the focus of the prayers of those engaged in the most dangerous activity the world then offered - childbirth.

So in this picture and its context are many of the elements of the early modern world - of mystic spirituality, of domestic bliss and procreational risk, even of the dangerously unrespectable. The story of the last five centuries in the West has been howwe have managed all that. And we seemed, recently, to have got the hang of it.

But we are managing less well than we might have hoped. Take our next image of a family on the move. Last month a young couple left their five-year-old son in the play area of a restaurant in a Northern town. In the lavatory they injected accidentally fatal overdoses of heroin.

It is, of course silly to rail against our present ills on the back of this terrible event. Modern Dewsbury is a lot more comfortable than early modern Wittenberg. And many of those ills plainly find their cause in failure of social policy. Huge numbers of young people have grown up without proper access to the means of family life - education, housing and employment. But the means to blow your troubles away come readily and cheaply to hand.

There is, however, something deeper, and worse, going on. We can't just commiserate with the worst victims of family failure. Our failure to live together runs all the way through society. For instance, how it rocked the Child Support Agency to find itself dealing not with a bunch of shamefaced blokes, but with a politically significant force! Our society is not organised for death in the old way. But it is rather badly organised for life. We used to pray that we and others might be spared the worst family misfortunes, sickness and bereavement. But now that fate constrains us less, we don't kn ow how to choose life properly. We don't know how to pray, nor what we should pray for. We are less able to share life, or to inherit a stock of practical wisdom, or to learn how to be intimate partners. We do not know what a charmed circle would look li ke.

After five centuries, we are often as new to the game of happy families as Brother Martin and Sister Catherine were. We are very knowing, very worldly, about our immediate appetites, but otherwise we suffer a terrible innocence. We are fleeing from something; is our imagined Herod one another? If so, Christmas is probably a good time to stop running, rest for a while, and renew the imagination.

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