Incomplete Incarnation

I am grateful to Rev. Dr. Scott Paeth for his sermon of December 26, 2021 (Edgebrook Community Church [UCC], Chicago) on Matthew 2:16–18, which prompted my memory of the Cogniet painting mentioned below, along with parts of this reflection.

When you’ve worked in liturgical publishing for thirty years, you’ve seen a lot of religious or sacred art. I mean a LOT of it—in the course of selecting covers for worship resources or books, magazines, for article illustrations, parish bulletin services, and so on.

Few works have ever stopped me in my tracks (or, in the internet age, my scrolling) the way that Léon Cogniet’s Massacre des Innocents did when I first encountered it. Though Iam primarily an aural—not a visual—person, its power and the nearly photojournalistic point of view struck me hard. Several years later, I showed the image to an artist friend, who commented on how Cogniet had co-opted the visual vocabulary of so many tranquil Madonna and Child paintings, resituating it here in a horrific context.

I’ve long thought it a manifestation of “Incomplete Incarnation” that the Roman Catholic Lectionary snips out precisely verses 16–18 from Matthew 2 on the only Sunday that it is read. (I wrote an article with the title “Incomplete Incarnation” for THE HYMN magazine in 1995; this matter has troubled me for some time.) Our surrounding culture has done so many things to evade the fact that Christ was born for the express purpose of dying. The stable has been sanitized and deodorized (an impulse going back to the time of Francis of Assisi), the beast spittle is wiped off the hay in the manger. We omit the original text from “What Child Is This” (“nails, spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me, for you”), skip over or delete the thorns/curse verse of “Joy to the World,” and often ignore the Matthean or Johannine gospel options for Christmas. What congregation sings “Coventry Carol” these days? This hymnal editor knows that it is rarely included any longer.

I am fortunate to be Director of Music in a church that uses the Revised Common Lectionary, which includes the verses about the Innocents’ slaughter. I’ll hasten to add it’s unlikely that the framers of the Roman rite lectionary were trying to cleanse Matthew’s gospel for Christmas. More likely they thought of those passages as belonging to December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Perhaps the mindset was that the passage would be read, though not heard by the majority of the faithful, except those who attended daily Mass. Its being proclaimed is enough. The fact remains that most Roman Catholic Christians never hear this passage proclaimed at Mass.

As Rev. Paeth pointed out in his December 26 sermon, it is precisely the horrific contexts of our world into which Jesus was born—including the fact that ours is a world in which tyrants still have no problem with infants dying if it helps preserve their tyranny. When we gloss over or try to rectify all the unpleasantness and inconvenience surrounding the birth of Jesus, from his pre-marital conception to his family being border-crossing refugees in a foreign land, we diminish the mystery of the Incarnation. As scripture scholars point out, the purpose of these events in the Infancy Narratives is to foretell the passion and death of Jesus. To omit or expunge them in our Nativity celebrations is to simultaneously diminish his passion and death as well, for—as with all the mysteries of faith—they are intimately bound up together.

We cannot think that when the Infant is no longer in the stories, then the Incarnation likewise ceases to exist. As a matter of fact, the Incarnation is still there on Calvary and in the tomb. How much preaching on the Incarnation has there been on Good Friday? To believe in and follow a God-among-us, a God-made-flesh means that we must allow the mystery to penetrate everywhere, including our own lives and our own flesh. How often have we ever heard Incarnation mentioned in relation to Baptism? Yet in the sacrament the Holy Spirit once again makes Christ incarnate in human flesh—our human flesh.

A more contemporary comparison with the Cogniet painting was made in that Dec. 26th sermon: the now-iconic photograph of a young Afghan woman on the cover of the June 1985 issue of National Geographic. That issue not only told of the war-torn lives and haunted faces of refugees there, but also contained an article about the Mexico/U.S. border, and the holy families who put their very lives on the line there. When we want to see where God continues to dwell among us and is enfleshed in our midst, we can look right there. It also saddened me to think how much similarity there was between the life of the woman in Cogniet’s painting, and the life of the Afghan woman on that magazine cover. How tragic that after these thousands of years, the lives of so many women have changed so little.

Maybe we can begin resuscitating a post-Christmastide Incarnation in these early weeks of Ordinary Time. My heart rejoiced this past weekend when I walked into St. Clement parish in Chicago (where I was to be a substitute organist) to see the bright red poinsettia plants still adorning the sanctuary, setting a visual reminder for us that we continued to be in the time of God incarnate.

In the spirit of the time when these Sundays were referred to as Sundays of Epiphany (they still are in the Revised Common Lectionary), we can look more earnestly for ongoing epiphanies and theophanies in the miracles, the callings, the teachings and—in this year of Luke—in the face of Christ, set toward Jerusalem and the purpose of the Incarnation. May the God Incarnate in those feet that made the journey there also be made incarnate in us, as we follow.

4 comments

  1. Excellent!

    It’s not irrelevant to its message that … Sharbat Gula was given asylum in Italy after the Taliban took back control of Afghanistan last year:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/26/world/europe/afghan-girl-national-geographic.html

    Jesus destroyed Death by death in the Paschal Mystery, but Death has apostles that continue to work in the world*. Sanitizing the Scriptures obscures that reality, and thus why our perseverant discipleship is still needed.

    * Credit for this metaphor goes to Fr Michael Simeone, SJ, an Old Testament scholar at Boston College who is, among other things, a great homilist.

  2. Thank you, Alan. As someone who has experienced the loss of multiple children, two not long after Christmas, the account of the Holy Innocents is very close to me, so I greatly appreciate your mention of this Scripture and your inclusion of this striking painting.

    As you said, Cogniet flips the Madonna and Child motif from one of “all is calm, all is bright” to one of urgency and horror. The Coventry Carol also flips the Christmas narrative in a similar way, prefiguring the later division and suffering associated with Christ’s message. When possible, I try to include Coventry Carol in the Christmas season, as many people have never heard it, similar to the passage you mentioned. People often comment later about its poignancy and how it reminds them about Joseph’s dream, the flight into Egypt and the Holy Innocents, all of which tend to get lost in the hectic pace of modern Christmas festivities.

  3. One of the features of the Infancy Narratives, and the Joyous Mysteries of the (Dominican) Rosary that draws from them, is noticing how many journeys happen in them: almost all of them involve some measure of risk once we peel away the sanitizing and comforting veils that we’ve laid over them. (Even the angelic visitations would normally strike fear into the heart of anyone familiar with the scriptural tradition of angelic visitations, which were not normally sweet but rather more typically terrifying events.)

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