Rector's Christmas Message 2021
You may recognize the image above, at least as one you’ve seen on Christmas cards before. It’s called
Hunters in the Snow by Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1565.
It has an enduring charm as it depicts what, at first glance, appears to be a lovely winter scene - men returning from a hunt above people at play down on the ice. However, Bruegel’s paintings all demand a closer inspection as he tends to bury details deep within.
Look close at the hunters and you’ll see that they were not successful - between them only one small fox to show for their efforts. They trudge, shoulders bowed low, over the hill towards home and behind the tracks of a rabbit who has eluded them. The sign of an Inn to their left, devoted to the patron saints of the hunt, hangs precariously over the heads of those at work at the fire.
A recent article pointed out that far from depicting idyllic winter scenes, Bruegel’s winter paintings show life in a period of time in Europe that was unusually cold, coming in the midst of what is called the Little Ice Age, with 1564-5 being a winter of extreme cold. Despite the playfulness of the ice, it was a time of great scarcity, uncertain crop yields, riots, illness, and death.
Things in Bruegel’s painting are not what they seem to be on the surface. At first glance things at this time of year are not always what they seem to be, either. For, despite the decorations, music, cheer, and sentimentality of the season many struggle more at this time year than any other - both mentally, emotionally, and financially. Our parish will commit to helping people that may not otherwise be able to afford the Christmas dinner that you and I will enjoy. For others, this may be the first Christmas without a particular friend or loved one in their lives.
As well, we are still in the midst of the collective traumatic experience of the pandemic and all that comes with it. We would hardly believe, a year ago, that it would be still be impacting our Christmas Eve services in 2021 - but this is the case, and even now with growing cases things feel uncertain.
It is still, like the tranquil scene depicted in Bruegel’s painting, a tumultuous and troubling time in our lives, but we mustn’t forget that despite the carols which paint a tranquil picture of the place and time into which Jesus was born, his was much like our own time - full of tragedy, politically unstable, and in much need of healing.
Here is a child, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, born to the most unlikely of people - an unwed and very young girl in 1st century Palestine, who gives birth to him in an unlikely and seemingly unsuitable place - a manger.
Yet it is precisely to the lowliest of people and in the lowliest of places that God sends his only begotten Son to take on human flesh and live and die as one of us. This is what we celebrate at Christmas, this is what Christ’s incarnation means to us - God sends his Son to be born of the Virgin Mary in the humble darkness of the manger, that he may also enter into the darkness of our lives and there bring light, peace, and comfort.
This is why Bruegel’s painting always reminds me of this time of year - there is so much more than meets the eye on the first glance, and it can be perilously easy, in the midst of the world’s celebration of Christmas, to lose sight of the reason for our joy. Christ has come to dispel the darkness, he has come to bring peace to those who know no peace, hope to those who despair, to show us love, and to offer us salvation from all the chains which bind us.
May his light shine into your heart, this Christmas season, and may you know the peace and love he has come to bring. May all of our hearts prepare him room in what remains of this Advent season, and may we rejoice with the angels, shepherds, and animals round-about his crib at his birth.
The Wardens and I thank you for your ongoing support of this parish, for your prayers, your care, and your friendship; and Shannon and I wish each and every one of you God’s abundant blessings and a most happy Christmas.
Your friends under Christ’s mercy,
The Rev. Colin & Shannon (and Bramble) Nicolle