The Beauty of Her Gaze


Henry Moore was perhaps the most well-known British sculptor of the 20th century. As happened with some American artists during WWII, Moore was engaged to use his artistic skills as part of his nation’s war effort. His drawings of people sheltering in the London Tube tunnels during the bombing were compelling. And they had a great effect on a certain priest who was considering commissioning a sculpture. In particular, Henry Moore’s way of depicting mothers holding their children struck this priest as indicating a great sensitivity. This led him to hire Moore to carve a large stone Madonna and Child for St. Matthew’s, Northampton.

Though Henry Moore was not a practicing Christian, he was rather thoughtful about the spiritual dimension of this important commission. He was already making sculptures in a modern manner tending toward abstraction (see his St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, Mother and Child). And yet, he knew that this piece had in some way to be different. At the time, he wrote that, unlike secular sculpture, this piece “could not be too abstract or it would have forgone the traditional deep meaning of the subject.” Here is how he described his thinking about the project:

I began thinking of the ‘Madonna and Child’ for St Matthew’s by considering in what ways a Madonna and Child differs from a carving of just a ‘Mother and Child’ – that is by considering how in my opinion religious art differs from secular art. It’s not easy to describe in words what this difference is, except by saying in general terms that the ‘Madonna and Child’ should have an austerity and a nobility and some touch of grandeur (even hieratic {or ‘priestly’} aloofness), which is missing in the ‘everyday’ Mother and Child idea.

Humanly accessible, and yet spiritually apart, might be another way of capturing Henry Moore’s thought here. Like some other artists, Moore achieves this human accessibility by building upon an important strand of Christian spirituality. Mary provides and becomes our human connection with the incarnate Holy One. In this sense, Mary is not only the mother of our Lord, but also the mother of our faith. Look at her posture, in this photo of Moore’s sculpture. As I understand it, a person walking forward seeking to view this work up close, advances along an aisle that is to the side of the sculpture. And so, Mary’s face and gaze engage the approaching viewer. This connection is therefore established before the visitor stands face to face with the representation of the Christ child. To extend this idea, the Church as our mother, engages and upholds us as we approach the mystery of Mary’s God-given child.


This post is based on my homily for the First Sunday After Christmas, December 30, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Arms of Love


Today we commemorate Charles Henry Brent, who in 1902 was called from a slum parish in Boston to serve as Missionary Bishop of the Philippines, arriving on the same ship as William Howard Taft, the territorial Governor and future President. Brent’s missionary vision was evident in his sustained commitment to minister to those at the margins, his work toward ecumenical unity among churches, and his pastoral oversight as a bishop. A much loved prayer written by Brent is now one of the prayers for mission in the Book of Common Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. (BCP:101)

Through our small hands, his great arms of love still reach out to embrace the world, and touch everything within it. Through our hands those arms of love transform our work and our play, so that small activities and projects become part of his greater and divine work of love.

Not just through the hands of the priest who reaches out to hold a baby at the font, but also through the hands of a neonatal nurse who tends a newborn in the hospital; the hands of a teacher who writes a supportive comment on a young students worksheet, and a parent who tucks a child into bed at night.

The Lord of glory stretches out arms of love through the hands of painters who help us see light, the hands of poets who put down patterns of words to help us perceive what is true, and the hands of musicians who express harmonies rooted in a beauty more profound than we can create by ourselves.

I hope you see glimpses of those great arms of love at work through your hands.

(Shown above is John Singer Sargent’s bronze casting of a plaster study he did (around 1900) in preparation for his mural series at the Boston Public Library. Both the Hirshorn Museum in Washington and the Tate in London have examples.)