The Irvine Tartan • My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican
No one bothers to take a photograph of something they don’t want to remember. There have been a lot of photographs I never bothered to take. The few I did, I cherish. Some are on my mantle. Others are displayed on a library table in my living room. Some hang on the walls about me. I have discovered other photographs in drawers and albums and shoeboxes. Photographs taken on box cameras by another generation.
I am reluctant to discard these black and white tokens of intention to memory. Most of the people in the scenes are unknown to me. Identifying comments penned in an unfamiliar hand on the back of the prints are of no help. But none of the photos have fallen into my life by accident. My parents took some of these prints. Others, the more faded of the collection, were taken by others older than they – possibly my grandparents. I do not know. What I do know is this: not one was taken other than to help bring to memory a cherished moment, person, event. Photos invite speculation on my part but those that exposed the roll of film knew the occasion and wanted to keep it as permanently as they could. They eagerly awaited its development and shared the joy of seeing the prints and refreshing memories.
Every generation has made an effort to recall and remember.
I like to decorate my Christmas tree in the middle of my living room. With boxes of ornaments arranged on seat cushions, I begin with the string of lights. I walk around and around, spacing the lights and wrapping the entire tree. The ornaments descend from the crown to the base in increasing size. Garland ties it all together and the task is complete. I then slide the tree in its water-filled base into a corner, close to an outlet.
I finished this traditional Advent preparation the other night. I then sat in a chair, studying the form and shape and curious as to what this tree held for me this year. The miniature lights of the tree washed the room in a warm glow. I saw some familiar objects surrounding me in a new light. A picture on the wall, beyond the upper branches, arrested my attention.
Through the boughs, I took notice of the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa. The icon is attributed to the brush of Luke the evangelist. Its discovery by Constantine’s mother, Helen, in fourth century Jerusalem adds to its rich tradition. It hangs on my wall claiming place, accomplishing a sense or recollection.
You may be agnostic about Luke’s painting the famous icon of Our Blessed Mother with her Divine Child. I am. Nonetheless I am confident that whatever artist’s hand recorded the scene it needed to be remembered. Successive generations, while not witnesses to the nativity, never felt like discarding the icon. They wanted to remember what they had not known.
I thought of the black and white Kodak prints in the end table drawer. That something happened, even in our absence, and that we can remember it, is more crucial than our having been present to authenticate it.
I reflected on the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa. You may know the icon better as The Black Madonna. This image provides me with an image of redemption. A Polish village not far from the Camp located at Krakow has been home to the image from the fifteenth century. It has attracted pilgrims whose devotion spans generations.
The pilgrimage of the faithful over the centuries echoes the footsteps of the men and women who visited a new mother whose name they would learn as Mary and whose young son had yet to be named. The mid-wife and others who helped in the birth had witnessed a procession of grace. As Joseph and his wife hosted the interested and curious the baby did what all babies do best – he charmed shepherd and chambermaid alike with the aplomb that only new-borns know.
Displaced from Galilee, having family in the City of David advantaged this family little. Roman patrols and jostling crowds swelling a City saw the best and the worst that there was to offer. Good people and bad people pushed into a City that became the microcosm of the Mediterranean world. Businessmen and tradesmen, adolescents and the aged returned as though on a pilgrimage – at the behest of the Emperor. To be counted and to be taxed, these citizens found themselves out of step in a world from whence they came. Publicans and merchants, thieves and petty robbers, prostitutes with their pimps – they plied their trade in a City renowned for its king. Not all were holy. Few were respectable. Some were exploitive.
Our Lady and her Baby witnessed it. They saw the refuse of broken lives; lonely beyond the imagination of a young mother homesick for her family, Anne and Joachim so many days walk distant. Fear and apprehension must have prompted Mary to ask of Joseph why had they come. Why had they come at all? She would reassure him – and herself! – of the visit of Gabriel. And he would share with her the dream he had, and the conviction of God’s hand on them all.
Our Lady and her Baby look at me still, through the thin veil of an icon beyond the uppermost branches of my Balsam Fir. Mary and her Baby – I’ve come to know him as Jesus – witness still a world no less broken, no less in need of redemption and acceptance, still yearning for restoration and forgiveness.
The image has helped one generation after another discover the truth of God’s care and compassion. In this penetrating look of Mother and Child my conceit is like dross. Pride is cast down while those suffering from human disregard are raised up and brought closer. The hungry are fed with good things while the rich are sent away; empty – to the astonishment of all.
Copyright © 2003 James T. Irvine
penultimate WORD - Festivals of Light Series