David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.
Pastor, Silverside Church
Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation
Sermon Series Winter 2006-07
God in Great Art
December 24, 2006 Morning Service Sermon #5
“Mother about to Wash Her Sleepy Child”
Impressionist artist Mary Cassatt loved to paint scenes of women and women with children; she was fascinated with children, as a matter of fact, even though she never had children of her own. The image of the painting before us today is an example of her amazing work. Incidentally, she was also famous for her printmaking skills.
The painting at which you’re now looking has the title, “Mother about to Wash Her Sleepy Child.” One art historian made these comments about Cassatt and this painting in particular:
Miss Cassatt has known the way to escape from the sentimentality on which most [English artists] have foundered. In “Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child” a luminous and tender domesticity is Cassatt's subject, one to which she devoted nearly a third of her artistic production. Here she explores surface patterns, elements of composition she observed in Japanese prints, and the awkward naturalism of pose typical of Degas's work and an important element of the impressionist concern to catch a moment’s movement or light.
Cassatt was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, in 1844. When she was still a little girl, her parents moved the family to Paris. One would think such a move would be a most fortunate stroke of luck for a child with so much artistic skill awaiting to be born. That might be true today, but not so in Cassatt’s time. Cultural historians tell us that it was easier for a woman in Cassatt’s time, even in Europe, to become a physician than an artist. Both were still clearly the domains of men. Nonetheless, acclaim and success came to her–largely because of the embrace of Edgar Dugas.
After a few years in Paris, the family moved back to Pennsylvania. In 1861, still in her teens, Mary Cassatt began to study painting formally at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philly. Five years later, she would return to Paris, and that city would become her professional home.
On a personal level, Mary Cassatt is remembered as a very outspoken personality. In fact, as the years rolled on, and as she grew increasingly blind, her sharp tongue kept even one-time friends at a distance. She referred to the works of Matisse and Picasso as “dreadful paintings,” and the water-lily paintings of Monet she called “glorified wallpaper”! Ouch!
Now, let’s think for a bit about Mary the mother of Jesus and her baby boy who was surely sleepy and who needed a bath! Many of you fathers were not in that generation who went into delivery rooms with their wives, coached them on their breathing, saw their children being born, and held them as soon as the doctor forced a healthy cry from them, if a good cry hadn’t been volunteered almost immediately. I was in that generation, though, and I can tell you that at birth, Jesus needed a really good scrubbing down. The chances of that having happened in a stable or a cave with only a trough of drinking water for the animals available are almost non-existent. Baby Jesus might have been a little cleaned up, but not a lot, and there is no way he was completely and totally silent.
The story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t tell us much at all. In fact, it’s a grand total of one verse long!
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (Matt 2:7 NRSV).
That’s it. That’s all that needed to be said, according to Matthew.
Who helps this little 13 or 14 year old girl deliver her first child? Well, according to Matthew, no one or no one worth mentioning. But according to legends, stories that were widely told but not chosen for inclusion in the writings that came to be designated as “scripture,” when Joseph realized that Mary was about to have the baby, he went and found two midwives to help her. This makes perfect sense to me! And literarily speaking, it would have made perfect sense also for a writer who wanted to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus since the Jews in Egyptian bondage, during ancient times, had been saved through the disobedience of midwives who ignored the Pharaoh’s order to kill off the Hebrew babies as they were born.
In any case, the two midwives in the legendary stories did what Joseph asked them to do, but one of them wondered biologically how a reputed “virgin birth” could work, and when she did a quick pelvic exam to see for herself her hand withered! Miraculously, of course, when she held the baby Jesus...her hand was healed. Wow!
Jesus is the most inconsequential person in the New Testament birth narratives. And why not? The holiday named in his honor, as it is celebrated by most modern Christians, has almost nothing to do with him anyway. Jesus is the most inconsequential entity in most every Christmas event.The New Testament writers, the two who cared to write about his birth, don't let him make a peep, and the carol writers follow suit.
• He doesn't cry. • He is not frightened by the sounds of animals all around him–strange sounds to any newborn. “The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”• He doesn't resist Mary and Joseph as they bind his little body likea papoose in strips of cloth, "swaddling clothes," so that his little bones will grow straight and strong from the get go.• The prickly straw in the manger, the animals' feeding trough, pokes his tender newborn skin, and he doesn't even whimper.• Mary never nurses him; maybe virgin mothers don't get breast milk. And there were no bottles as far as we know; yet, he never cried from hunger. Maybe those cattle, though, did more than "low"!• You hardly know the kid is there, and most surprisingly: hisdiaper is never changed, and he never needs a diaper change!• Jesus is just so sleepy; practically all the little guy does is sleep.That works! Inconsequential equals innocuous.
We live in a world in which those who claim to live by the
teachings of Jesus will fight, literally fight, to try to force someone
to believe in Jesus' so-called immaculate conception, but feel noresponsibility whatsoever to live by the love about which he taughtand by which he lived his own life. There is no clearer indication than this that Jesus really doesn’t matter at all.
One of the realities that becomes clear to me as we people of faith find ourselves once again at this culturally-dominated holiday season is that the typical “Christian” is a fan of a passive, helpless Jesus only. Most Christians, and I’m not referring to those who only show up for worship at Christmas and Easter, only think of Jesus in two contexts; in both of them he has been silenced–as a baby in a manger and as a criminal being executed.
- In one scenario, his hands are bound with swaddling clothes; in the other, his hands are nailed to a Roman cross.
- In one setting, the writers and rememberers have made him nothing more than a lifeless, plastic baby doll like the prop used in most Christmas pageants–and a Caucasian one at that! In the other setting, as he dies, he has barely enough energy to speak since the Romans have already nearly beaten the life out of him.
Such a passive Jesus, whose plight can do no more than cause us to emote, is much easier to deal with than a Jesus who actually teaches us how to live–a Jesus whose lessons and life example demand a response from us, a series of responses to be precise. This kind of Jesus is just too bothersome for us. We want to take cues from our culture on how to live, not from a first-century Jewish rabble rouser who wasn’t and who wouldn’t be welcomed into polite society.
We don’t love Jesus’ pain and death, but we surely prefer relating to a man who has nothing much left to say than to a man who keeps reminding us that living God’s way always, always, always disrupts the status quo and always, always, always calls on us to act for the well-being of others; not tolerating self-centeredness in ourselves or a closed-ness to God’s love for us and for all people. It’s so much easier for us to feel sorry for the passive man whom the Romans have overpowered and left virtually life-less and word-less.
We love oo-ing and ah-ing over sweet little Jesus boy. He’s just a precious little sleepy child like the one in Mary Cassatt’s painting who doesn’t know her or his state of comfort is about to be disturbed by a bath. Everybody except the early Scrooge loves cute little silent babies. Silent babies don’t require anything from us. They don’t awaken our slumber. We don’t have to haul out the pampers. A mother doesn’t have to get ready to nurse the baby, and a dad doesn’t have to start warming up the formula. Our treasured silence isn’t disrupted by piercing or otherwise loud cries of dissatisfaction.
The Jesus, between his birth and death, who speaks and lives in such a way as to make us uncomfortable unless we’re at least willing to try to live the way he lived...he’s too much! Give me a holy infant, tender and mild who sleeps in heavenly peace, make the Jesus’ whose teachings challenge the way I live…make him go away!