Every advent season I reflect on some of the classic paintings of the nativity reproduced in a book called The Life of Jesus from the National Gallery of Art. I’m stunned year after year at the beauty of The Annunciation by Jan van Eyck, the wood painting of The Nativity by Fra Filippo Lippi and The Adoration of the Child in magnificent white marble relief by Domenico Gagini.
I almost laugh out loud, however, when I focus on The Nativity by the Flemish painter with the full Christian name of Petrus Christus. In this representation, Mary, Joseph and Jesus are not in a dingy manger but are under a gothic arch with engraved representations of Adam and Eve and other scenes from Genesis on it. But what strikes me as particularly humorous is that in the painting Joseph has evidently taken off his Flemish wooden clogs!
How could the painter be so culture-bound as to project his Flemish culture onto a scene from first-century Palestine? In truth, we all tend to picture God through our own cultural lenses. And doesn’t that fact actually point to the Incarnation itself? Jesus came to live in human culture and human shoes. The testimony of John was that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
God does not change from one culture to the next. But, indeed, if Jesus had lived in a fifteenth-century Flemish culture he would have worn clogs and if he lived in Chicago today, he would probably be walking around in jeans and tennis shoes. The Incarnation is rooted in history but it also transcends culture. Jesus chose to live not only in Bethlehem but to live in us.
So the shoes of the nativity are our shoes too. We will take them off when we worship the Christ child in our Scripture lessons and carols. There is profound beauty and meaning in the Nativity scene. But Jesus did not stay in the stable. He came to live in us. So now we can also walk in our 21st century shoes knowing that Jesus is walking with us, “Christ in us, the hope of glory.”
How do you feel like Christ walks in your “shoes” daily?
What does it look like in today’s culture to be the hands and feet of Christ?
Bob Fryling is Publisher of InterVarsity Press and has recently written The Leadership Ellipse: Shaping How You Lead by who You Are. (IVP)