Brueghel the Elder’s “The Census at Bethlehem” was painted in our part of the world in 1566 and provides a window on 16th century life in the Low Countries.
An unhaloed, blue-robed Mary is in the center. In the actual painting she is easily overlooked, just another figure in this densely-populated canvas. She is riding a donkey — the donkey plus her blue robe provide the only iconographic clues to who she is, just as the saw Joseph is carrying over his left shoulder reminds us of his identity: a hard-working carpenter who, even while in a town a long way from Nazareth, is prepared to earn his living. We know the story. They’re here to be counted. For purposes of taxation, Caesar Augustus in distant Rome has ordered a census and this requires each husband, with his family, go to his home town even if he has become a stranger there and even if the timing couldn’t be worse. Mary is in the final days — in fact the final hours — of her pregnancy. It’s notable that there is no one to welcome them. In fact no one notices them. They’re alone in the crowd. Joseph will soon be knocking on doors seeking a room and will regard himself as lucky to be allowed use of a cave on the edge of town where domestic animals are sheltered. After the birth of their child, shepherds summoned by angels will be the only ones to congratulate Mary and Joseph for the birth of their heaven-marked son.
In our time, when so many have been made refugees because of war, collapsed economies, disastrous weather and environmental damage, this painting seems especially timely. It’s notable that Breughel made it in the months following an especially hard winter in Flanders and Holland. Many people and animals had frozen to death. Breughel wasn’t tempted to romanticize the world in which Mary gave birth to Jesus.
Here is what Thomas Merton had to say about Christ’s nativity:
“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, and yet He must be in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst. For them, there is no escape even in imagination. They cannot identify with the power structure of a crowded humanity which seeks to project itself outward, anywhere, in a centrifugal flight into the void, to get out there where there is no God, no man, no name, no identity, no weight, no self, nothing but the bright, self-directed, perfectly obedient and infinitely expensive machine.” (Raids on the Unspeakable)
It’s tempting to see in this a two-tiered Christmas story, in which Jesus is identified with the weak, the powerless, the refugee — and we, the comfortable, observe it from a distance and are judged by how we “feel” about it. But the mystery of the incarnation involves us all: Christ is searching for lodgings in all of us, and because of this we are united in Christ with the weak, the powerless, the refugee. As Meister Eckhart wrote, “What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture?” So our response to the powerless is one of mysterious unity with them. We are, all of us, one in Christ.
Jim & Nancy