Friday, August 23, 2013



The Atlantic Ocean cuts Mantoloking in half
You may remember that Mantoloking, NJ, was one of the hardest hit towns on the Jersey seacoast during hurricane Sandy (October 29, 2012). The modern house that we were using for the day of recollection this past Wednesday had sustained some severe damage, but had been beautifully restored over the past few months without a trace of Sandy's vengeance. However, just a couple of blocks from where we were the Atlantic Ocean had cut right through the island during the storm, temporarily joining ocean and bay, forming a new inlet and destroying several houses in the process. Nearby some beautiful beachfront mansions were torn to pieces and scattered up and down the coast, while others were lifted off their foundations and tossed into the bay or the ocean. The several empty seafront lots still stand as mute witnesses to the fury of Sandy.

This past week I experienced a real blessing as I gave a day of recollection to a group of about 15 women in Mantoloking. I don’t have room to reproduce either of the talks I gave, but I do want to share with you a little about the first one, which concerned my favorite painting, “The Numbering at Bethlehem” by the Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

"The Numbering at Bethlehem"    1566
It depicts Joseph and Mary coming to Bethlehem to be counted for taxation. Bethlehem is depicted as a snow-covered Flemish village that is bustling with everyday activity: a butcher slaughtering a pig, children skating on the pond, a young man courting a maiden. Dressed as Flemish peasants Mary and Joseph are nearly lost from our view in the lower center of the scene. Joseph is carrying a saw over his shoulder and is pulling an ox and a donkey on which sits an obviously pregnant woman in a blue cloak. Despite their significance to the structure of Christianity, Joseph and Mary, pregnant with Jesus, had to submit to the same taxation as every other average citizen. No one notices the Holy Family arriving in Bethlehem as a prelude to the most momentous event in history.
Detail: Joseph and Mary
Bruegel, critics tell us, was not terribly interested in the religious dimension of this or any of his paintings. Rather, they say, this painting exemplifies the genre of painting which Bruegel was the first to introduce – that is, the inclusion of a major event nearly hidden in a scene chock-full of daily occurrences."The Numbering at Bethlehem" is just an excuse for the painter to depict the variety of peasant activity in a snow-covered town.
But whether he realized it or not, Bruegel was giving us a wonderful scene to reflect on as Christians. With the eyes of faith we can see the deep significance of what’s going on here. This is God taking a risk with us; the word becoming flesh in a little town, unnoticed by everyone. In the incarnation as well as in his later passion and death we come face to face with the helplessness of God before man’s hardness of heart, before the countless everyday daily distractions that keep us from seeing God’s presence all around us.
“The Numbering at Bethlehem” is a perfect depiction of God making himself small, reducing himself into space and time for us, and sharing all of our sufferings, our shortcomings, or disappointments and disasters.

We celebrated mass in the same house, in a beautiful glass-walled room overlooking Barnegat Bay. And during the Prayer of the Faithful the participants lifted up their many friends and neighbors who had lost their homes. One of the women in the group is still “homeless,” drifting from one family member to another while negotiating the repair of her severely damaged house.
As we were lifting up all of these storm victims, I thought of the message of the painting that had been the focus of our morning conference: Jesus has come among us precisely to share our sufferings, to be with us, to walk among us (often unnoticed) during the worst of our trials.
Yes, Mantoloking turned out to be a perfect place to reflect on Bruegel’s lovely painting.

Salvador Dali "Last Supper"

1 comment:

  1. An old Jewish story goes that during the Jewish Days of Awe (starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur), an old rabbi prayed to God that if God will forgive the constant cruelty, pettiness, and general lack of charity among us humans that we humans will forgive God for allowing the occasional earthquake or hurricane.
    Ah, to dare to speak to God as an intimate friend!