In late October of 2008, during a trip to Europe, my family and I spent a week in Rome. During our stay in “the Eternal City,” we visited a special art exhibit of the artist Giovanni Bellini. Bellini was an Italian Renaissance painter, active in Venice in the 1400s. Our visit to this exhibit was not exactly on my Rome “to do” list, but my daughter had become enchanted with Bellini’s work and was excited by the possibility of seeing lots of his paintings all in the same place, which just happened to be when we were in Rome.
For the most part, those of us who visit art museums, experience art in a sort of isolation. Even the world’s largest art museums can boast only a few pieces by any one artist. The Bellini show in Rome provided a rare opportunity to see a wide range of paintings from one particular artist’s long career.
As I made my way through the exhibit, I was struck by the clear differences that were apparent in paintings that shared a common theme. If each of the paintings were viewed alone, the differences may have been impossible to appreciate. But, with similar themed paintings grouped together, the subtle differences were striking.
The most amazing part of the exhibit for me was a collection of Bellini’s Madonna and Child paintings (of which there are many). The subtle contrasts were hard to miss among the gathered paintings, which normally were scattered far and wide in museums around the world.
Most of the Madonna and Child paintings featured a gentle and serene Mary and a cherubic Christ Child. But, a few of them offered some interesting twists on the familiar theme. One of them in particular stood out for me, a painting entitled Madonna with Trees. This piece featured a Mary with eyes that might be described as casting a sidelong glance toward the Christ Child, as if she were asking herself, “What have I gotten myself into?”
Many Christians through the centuries and even today have probably asked themselves the very same question. If they haven’t, they probably should.
What have I gotten myself into?
To follow Christ is a challenging proposition. During the Christmas season, we can sometimes fall into the nostalgia trap, experiencing the season at a distance, gazing at cute manger scenes with only a sense of sentimentality, of the memories captured by the special season with its familiar music and stories. Even biblical accounts of the holy season can become just part of the routine.
But, we really ought to be asking ourselves, “What have I gotten myself into?”
Christ did not come into the world just so that we could have a nice holiday with lots of lights and special music at what is normally a dark and dreary time of year. Christ did not come into the world just to give us a pat on the back for our comfortable lives or beautiful churches or the bit of charitable giving we offer before the end of the tax year.
Christ came to challenge, and to share the love of God in a radical way. Though we have no way to know exactly how Jesus came into the world (even the stories in Matthew and Luke are remarkably different and don’t line up very well), we observe at Christmas the Incarnation of God in the form of a vulnerable infant. What an amazing way to experience and understand the Creator—an opportunity for wonder and awe indeed.
As yet another Christmas recedes into our memories, we Christians ought to take one last look, perhaps even a sidelong glance, and allow that sense of wonder to capture our imagination as it never has before and to challenge ourselves to ask the provocative question of faith: “What have I gotten myself into?”