As God’s people waited for the Messiah, their expectations rose, especially as their situation grew worse with occupation of Israel by Rome. They began to dream of a Messiah who would lead powerfully in the same manner as King David, the warrior who slew his tens of thousands, and in the manner of his son, Solomon, who built the grand Temple in Jerusalem. They dreamed of a leader who would put Israel on the map again – not as a military outpost for Rome – but as a people with their own power, wealth, land, and status. They wanted peace and security for themselves and their families, and they expected peace to come through a military-minded giant of a man who could defeat Caesar and give them the stuff that was rightfully theirs.
But, instead of a powerful giant, after all their waiting and anticipation, they got . . . .
. . . a baby.
. . . a baby?
. . . .a baby, born to a poor family, from a town with no prestige. They got a baby born into the equivalency of homelessness, placed in a manger, and saluted by shepherds. They anticipated a powerful leader in a palace decorated with ivory and gold, but instead, they got the nativity.
Their expectations for the way to peace were so grounded in worldly ideals that they didn’t recognize peace when he was born.
My family was blessed to visit some of the great art galleries in the world several years ago. The Louvre in Paris, The Kunsthistorisches in Vienna, The London Museum. Standing in front of the greatest works of art in the world was moving beyond words. And of all the works we experienced, my favorite was the one pictured here – Michelangelo’s depiction of the Holy Family.
I didn’t know to expect it as I toured the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, nor did I initially know who had painted it, but when I saw it, I knew that I loved it.
Michelangelo Buonarroti – The Holy Family with the infant St. John the Baptist (the Doni tondo) – 1506
We usually associate Michelangelo with his work as a sculptor, The David, or with his unbelievable masterpiece on the Sistine Chapel. This painting of the Holy Family is actually his only surviving easel painting.
So, here’s why I love this painting: Just look at Mary – look at her biceps! She is depicted as a strong woman, not passive, not mindless. I imagine that Mary was strong from fetching her own water. I imagine that only a strong woman could survive a donkey ride from Nazareth to Bethlehem when she was nine months pregnant. I imagine that only a strong woman could withstand the sword that would pierce her soul (Luke 2:35) when she watched her baby boy suffer on the cross. In some artistic renderings of Mary, she appears mindless and weak. Not in this one. Here, Michelangelo shows us Mary’s physical, mental, and spiritual strength.
I also love the painting because Jesus looks like a real child, a handful, a bit cantankerous, and this reminds me that Jesus was a real human being. For centuries after his life and death, it was debated how Jesus could have been both human and divine. But somehow, mysteriously, he was. He came into this world the same way we all do – as a powerless baby dependent on his mother and father to care for his every need. Jesus was a member of a real family from a little-known town called Nazareth. Mary and Joseph, country people, stand in contrast to the regal nude figures in the background of the painting, who appear to be more like stone statues than real flesh and blood.
Jesus is the real story of God’s work in history, and this painting brings him into focus. Jesus was human. And this painting celebrates his humanity. And God’s view of power.
When we read Luke, we are supposed to realize that when God broke into the world, there was a reversal of what was expected. God’s people hoped that their peace would come through a military king like David, but they got ordinary, human, baby Jesus.
And as an adult, he would spend time with ordinary, marginalized, poor people. And his kingdom would be about ordinary acts that seem weak in contrast to the world’s view of power.
Like taking care of his friend’s sick mother-in-law (Luke 4:38-39).
And touching people that no one else would touch (Luke 5:13).
And eating dinner with people that the religious set preferred to avoid (Luke 5:27-32).
And extending kindness to one of the lowest members of his society, a widow who had lost her son (Luke 7:11-17).
And defending a sinful woman against hypocrites who judged her (Luke 7:36-50).
And stopping to pay attention to an unclean, desperate, woman who needed to be seen and heard and touched (Luke 8: 40-56).
And telling a story in which the most hated, least likely person is cast as the hero because of his compassion and kindness (Luke 10:25-37).
And spending time with children who others want to exclude (Luke 15-17).
And accepting the hospitality of a wee, little, sinful man (Luke 19:1-10).
The kingdom of God is about ordinary life: hospitality, mercy, forgiving people who hurt us, sharing meals, prayer, nonviolence, and extending a hand of peace. When we contemplate how God brought peace through Christ, we should realize that peace did not come through the expected means of military efforts or hoarding of power and resources.
When God broke into this world, it was in the form of a powerless baby with no power or prestige. It’s not how the world expects peace to come, but we have to submit to God’s plan – like Mary did, like Jesus did, like the disciples did. We have to act in ordinary ways that seem weak in contrast to the world’s view of power.
It’s through submission to God’s way – and not our way – that we will mysteriously learn what real power is.