If you love surprises, chances are you live in a rich and safe part of the world.
There is a famous (but possibly not ancient, nor Chinese) curse that says ‘May you live in interesting times!’
(This Advent we are spending time with Mark Pierson’s Advent in Art series, a set of paintings by James B Janknegt, curated by Alison Squires. Art is particularly helpful for sparking conversations between kids and adults, so my part in all this is to encourage us to engage with kids over the paintings.)
If you live in a place without antibiotics, due process, chocolate or electricity, like, say, Palestine (ancient or, for many of its inhabitants, modern), surprises are more likely to be dangerous than wonderful.
So imagine you are on night shift, sleeping rough, looking after someone else’s sheep. You earn less than minimum wage, you don’t get to socialise much, Occupational Safety and Health hasn’t made much of an impact on policies about wolf-catching and sheep-protecting, and on top of that, you don’t smell too flash.
Surprise! There’s a huge flash in the sky and a supernatural stranger is standing next to you! Aagh!
How would you feel at first? And what about later on?
The art and Mark’s reflections go alongside the biblical texts (Luke 2:1-20 this week) to help us see these stories freshly, hear from God more clearly and follow Jesus more closely. Put together, the words and paintings help us get inside the stories.
This week a friend in Christchurch said his church was using Advent in Art and reflecting together on the paintings each Sunday morning. I thought that people in his church could probably relate to the shepherds’ terrifying experience better than many of us.
A big surprise in the middle of the night? Something terrifying and unexpected? Something that means that your life is never the same again? Something that makes you suddenly leave where you are and go somewhere else in a hurry? From what Luke says, the shepherds reacted with as much terror as if it had been a major earthquake.
So some questions to get your conversations started (just if you need prompting), especially if you have some small people in your life who you could look at the painting with:
- Do you like surprises? When have you been very surprised by something? What about it was good and what was bad?
- Reading the story (see Luke 2:1-20) and looking at the painting, list as many surprising things as you can think of. Which are good surprises, which are bad, and which are a bit of both?
- What do you think each of the shepherds in the painting is thinking? Which one do you feel most similar to?
- Have you ever felt surprised by God? What happened?
- Is there anything surprising about the painting or the story that you think God might be wanting to draw your attention to this Christmas?
- Extra if you’re really getting into this: have a look at the resources (some for pastors and serious students of the text, some for other adults, some for kids) at textweek including a list of other artworks depicting the same scenes.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts, and those of any kids you look at the artwork with. Please do drop a word or two (no matter how profound or otherwise!) in the comments if you’re finding Advent in Art helpful.