It looks like a scene right out of the Christmas hymn, “In the bleak midwinter.” Peter Bruegel has evocatively painted the arrival of Mary and Joseph at Bethlehem, to participate in the census. It gives us a wonderful way to consider the Christmas Gospel. As Luke presents the story, the circumstances of Jesus’ birth are anchored in world history. Yet, as Bruegel shows us, God’s extraordinary entrance into the world in the Messiah’s birth happens in the midst of the ordinary.
Peter Bruegel’s painting is true to the Gospel, even if he portrays the scene in a 16th century northern Dutch village. He helps us realize that Mary and Joseph did not arrive in town that evening with all the attention focused on them. Just like our lives, and as Peter Bruegel portrays folks in his own day, the world around Joseph and Mary was focused upon itself.
Notice how Bruegel renders the scene: it’s early evening on a cold winter’s day in northern Europe. The sun is setting behind the great tree, at what might be about 4:00 pm. Having crossed the surface of a frozen pond, in the lower right, the Holy Family is just arriving at Bethlehem. To the left, in the direction they are headed, we see a table outside the inn that provides a temporary office for the traveling magistrate. A small crowd gathers there, to be included in the census. Their varying types of clothing suggest they have come from different places. To approach that inn and table, Joseph and Mary must go between several wagons, which are loaded with hay and grain, barrels of beer, and firewood. In the lower left corner, two hogs are being slaughtered, perhaps for an upcoming feast or for use in the kitchen of the inn.
This latter detail may be significant. For it’s worth noting how common it is in nativity paintings to find coded reminders of the Passion story that lies ahead. In Israel and for Jews, it would have been lambs or sheep; here, in northern Holland it is hogs. But either way, the child to be born this night is destined to be led as an animal to slaughter, as an atonement for an unknowing world – just the kind of world into which he arrived on a cold winter’s night.
Equally oblivious to the arrival of the Holy Family is the rest of the village: children everywhere are at play – some skating and sliding on the nearby pond and others playing on the frozen river up to the left. And all around them are men and women working at various chores and duties, trying to keep themselves alive. Across that frozen river in the upper left, some tradespeople are carrying bags of goods to be sold, while two others move a sled full of similar items in the opposite direction. In the upper center, a group stands around an open fire, and to the right of them another group may be preparing for a hunt.
In this northern Dutch version of winter in Bethlehem, the world of these people is not so very different from ours. Just like them, our focus tends to be upon ourselves, upon our daily activities of tasks and duties. So we miss the sheer wonder of the world around us. And, we miss the mysterious and unexpected presence of the Holy One in our midst. No one in Bruegel’s painting notices the arrival of Mary and Joseph!
It is just as John wrote in his Gospel: “He was in the world, and… yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”
The image above is of Peter Bruegel’s Census at Bethlehem (1566). This post is based on my homily for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which provides the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.
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