Superintendents' Letter

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In 1566, the Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted one of the first snow-covered landscapes in the history of art. This painting depicts a contemporary village at dusk in the depths of a harsh winter.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder The Census at Bethlehem WGA3380
See it in more detail HERE. When viewing the picture our eye may be drawn to a huddle of people at the left hand side; they are crowded around the doorway of a building, just like folk queuing for a Food Bank or vaccination centre today (though there is no social distancing among this Flemish throng).  

On closer observation, you notice that the focus of the group is a scribe sitting at a desk; this figure is a clue to the title of the painting, ‘The Census at Bethlehem’.  On realising the theme, you can find yourself searching for other signs of the biblical story somewhere in the picture.  Then, amid the hubbub of daily life for peasant farmers, traders and crafts-folk, in the foreground emerges a man leading a mule, which is being ridden by a young woman.
The painter treats the Gospel account of Joseph and Mary journeying into Bethlehem to be registered under the Roman census as an everyday scene.  On the surface, what is shown is nothing out of the ordinary, just a snapshot of the usual and mundane.  

But look a little closer, then the landscape becomes one with profound significance.  It is interesting to note that Pieter Bruegel the Elder paints a well-maintained church building in the background of his picture, maybe as a warning to us that official Christianity can be far removed from, and insignificant to, the concerns of most people’s days.  There is certainly a reoccurring trait among church folk, like us, which is the desire to confine God to a box labelled ‘religion’.  

Bruegel’s painting is a reminder that the story of the birth of Jesus rips up that delusion of ‘God in a box’ by revealing that God Incarnate (literally, the Divine in flesh and blood) is brought to us by a homeless couple seeking sanctuary – or put it this way, in the raw realities of daily life we can discover the very heart of existence.

This letter is being written as the raw reality of the omicron strain of coronavirus is reported to be rampaging through our communities and across the world.  Now families, friends and congregations are considering what the impact of this year’s Christmas gatherings could be, and plans are being revised accordingly.  

As we face yet another period of concern and uncertainty, let us ponder on the whole point of our celebrations.  The birth of a certain child to a destitute couple in Bethlehem exposes surprising truths: the sacred is found in the profane, the eternal is always timely, and what we regard as mundane declares the glories of the universe.  

In the words of Charles Wesley:

See the eternal Son of God
a mortal son of man;
dwelling in an earthly clod,
whom heaven cannot contain!

The God realised in Jesus makes a nonsense of our neatly boxed religion because it is a distraction from the real action, that the Divine is emerging before us in hubbub and rawness of our each and every day.
Wishing you all peace and joy this Christmas,
Nick, Alison & Neil
(Superintendency Team)

Superintendents' Letter