I will never forget the moment I first encountered the art of Giovanni Bellini. We were on honeymoon, in fact, in Venice and were wandering around the church of Sancta Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in a tourist-like way until we left the main body of the church and entered a side chapel where our eyes were arrested by the image of a Madonna and child on the triptych altarpiece. We just couldn’t work out for ages what was real and what was art, as the babe standing on Mary’s lap seemed to be in an alcove all of their own. It’s the nature of art, and for me particularly the art of Bellini, to make us stop and see things differently, to surprise us with perspectives we had never considered before, to take us beyond our normal world of reference.
I am sure that over the Christmas season you have seen a great deal of art, whether it has been the briefest glance as you hurry on to see who has sent you this card or looked at as it adorns a mantle piece or wall. In amongst them no doubt there are a fair number of Madonna’s and child’s, though I suspect that no one will have received a Bellini, especially his Madonna of the Meadows which hangs in the National Gallery, for it is unlike any other Madonna and child images I know. Mary dominates the picture but instead of presenting the child Jesus to us, the fingertips of her hands are just touching as if in tentative prayer and she is looking down at a sleeping baby. But this is not the sleep of the living but rather the peace of the dead, for the composition of the piece is more reminiscent of a Pieta, than a cradled child. In this picture, a copy of which I have left at the back of the Chapel for you to look at, Bellini surprises us in the midst of a Christmas scene to remind us of that moment when Mary holds her dead son. From feelings of joy and hope and life and peace, all of which we associate with a sleeping child, suddenly the feelings of horror and sadness and grief and pain at the sight of a dead baby come upon us. And yet if you continue to look more closely at this picture you notice that whilst the land is all barren and stoney, around Mary and the child the grass is lush and full of life. For this picture reveals that the birth of Jesus, his incarnation into the joys and sorrows of this human life, are part of the redemptive process, which culminates with his death on the cross and resurrection into new life.
By becoming a child like us, by entering into our human experience, God alters it and sanctifies it by his presence. What a wonderful thought, is that surely not something to celebrate, that through the Incarnation, in the images of Madonna and childs, stories of angels and wise men, we are reminded that our lives have become holy. When we write our essays, play football, change a nappy, give a lecture, drive the children to school as well as attend Chapel, we are holy. Not because we in ourselves are good enough to be holy but because God has taken on our human lives and sanctified them. I wonder what the world or even this College would be like if we realised the Christmas message and understood ourselves and each other as holy people. Christ’s Incarnation makes us holy but as we know that alone does not make us whole. Too well we know the damaging and distorting nature of sin. It is to the Passion that we must look to find our wholeness and it is to the Passion that our sermon series will take us this term.
One of my most memorable and poignant experiences of my time as a verger at St Paul’s was on the eve of Good Friday. The Eucharist of the Last Supper was over and we had stripped the alters of the linen and silver, the choir , echoing the desertion of the disciples, had literally walked out of the stalls without ceremony and the few who had attended the Watch had gone home. For a moment the cathedral was in a sullen, abandoned silence, then suddenly without reverence or respect the work staff appeared on the church floor and all the lights glared into existence. Without ceremony and chatting about normal things, they began to erect the cross. I can still hear the way the cathedral resonated with the hammering of the nails as if the Passion was happening all over again and we were not in the fine square mile of London but outside the city walls at Golgotha.
It has often been this leap in imagination that the three hours devotion on Good Friday has required. To sit before an image of the cross between the hours of 12 and 3 just as Mary did and contemplate the mystery of Christ’s Passion through addresses on his last seven words. This term we are invited to imaginatively place ourselves before the cross, to enter into that act of devotion, not for 3 hours but for seven weeks, in order to contemplate the mystery of our redemption, to be surprised by different perspectives, to be educated by new understandings and to receive his love which brings us not only to holiness but also to wholeness. Amen.
13th January 2008