A few years ago, the Community of Jesus published a little book, Sacred Seeing: Praying with the Frescoes in the Church of the Transfiguration. As we approach the New Year, it seemed like a good opportunity to share this simple guide to praying with the art here in the church, especially for those of you who aren’t able to come and see it for yourselves. Over the next twelve weeks, we will be sharing the meditations from the book. We hope that it helps to enrich your prayer life as 2017 begins!
Spend a few moments looking at the fresco image. Write down any first impressions you have. Does the image raise any questions for you? Write down what they are.
Read the Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Some thoughts and questions to ponder
What features of the image stand out most to you?
The infant Jesus is radiant, and the light emanating from him washes the wall behind him and illuminates the kneeling Magi. The star, almost at the center of the image, is the other bright element, shining ten times brighter than any other star in the sky. What connection does the fresco make between the light of the star and the light of the Child?
What do you notice about Mary and Joseph? What is Mary’s part in the event? What is Joseph’s part? What do they share in common?
In the Incarnation, Jesus descends to us so that we might be raised to him. Here, Jesus is raised upon Mary’s lap and the Magi are kneeling and bowing in adoration. What does this image say about ascending and descending in the kingdom of God?
Contrary to the human penchant for rising up and taking from God (remember the story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit), the Magi came to bow down and give their treasures to Jesus. Humble worship is presented here as the antithesis of sin. Perhaps this explains in part why worship can be such work, and also why it can bring us such blessing.
Look at the hand gesture of the infant Jesus, who seems to be reaching out like any baby might. But, is he reaching out to touch what is being offered, or is it to touch the hand of the one giving?
Who are the observers looking over the shoulders of the Magi? Why are they included in the story?
you sent the Gift of your only Son,
infinite love incarnate, descending to dwell among us.
By many and various lights,
you have drawn and led me into his presence,
and as I remember each of them, I give you thanks.
Now, here before the radiant grace of your Son,
I bow my own heart in humble praise.
What I have, I offer to him in adoring gratitude,
and wait for the touch of his hand upon my soul.
A Word from the Tradition
He who enriches others becomes poor. He took to himself the poverty of my flesh so that I might obtain the riches of his Godhead. He who is full empties himself. He emptied himself of his Godhead for a brief time so that I might share in his fullness. What is this wealth of goodness? What is this mystery that touches me?
—Gregory of Nazianzus (330-389)
Image: ©2003 The Epiphany by Silvestro Pistolesi at the Church of the Transfiguration