PILGRIMAGE: Brussels, Belgium—Noticing God by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Brussels, Belgium—Noticing God by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

The Musée d’Art Ancien, the national art museum in Brussels, is filled, as I expected, with a spectacular collection of Flemish and Dutch paintings.  I wander past masterpieces by Frans Hals, Rembrandt, and Van Dyck: portraits of well-fed merchants wearing wide lace collars and self-satisfied smiles.  I gape at the weird prophetic fantasies of Hieronymus Bosch, whose strange goblin creatures ride on the backs of pterodactyls and toss bombs onto the bizarre blue landscape far below.

I’m here in search of my favorite painting, by Peter Bruegel the Elder.  I come at last into a room full of paintings by the two Bruegels, father and son, and easily recognize the charming rural scenes and the brown, gray, and russet earth tones of the elder Bruegel.  I pause in front of his “The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents.”

Bruegel has set the Biblical story in his own country and his own century: the occupying troops are not Roman legionnaires but Spanish soldiers.  I watch in fascinated horror as men in silver breastplates and helmets raid a country village in Bruegel’s native Flanders.  Under the approving eye of their commander, they are stabbing little babies as terrified mothers scream in horror and try in vain to protect their children.  The painter’s own pain and sorrow give the scene more realism and emotional impact than any other depiction of this story I’ve ever seen.

Since this is in fact the companion piece to my favorite painting, I scan the other walls expectantly.  Soon I begin to worry that the picture I’ve come to see may be out on loan or temporarily removed for restoration.  With fingers crossed I move on into the next room, where, according to the sign, there are more Bruegels.  Turning to my left, I break into a relieved smile as I recognize my old familiar friend: “The Numbering at Bethlehem.”

The canvas, about six feet long and three-and-a-half feet high, depicts a snowy winter scene in a busy little sixteenth-century Flemish village.  The painting is buzzing with the activities of daily life: chickens are scratching the snow for food, children are playing on the ice and throwing snowballs, a butcher is slaughtering a pig in front of his shop, men are warming themselves around an outdoor fire, and a young man is courting a maid as they skate on the river.  Off to the left, people cluster patiently in the cold as an official at an open window writes their names in a fat book.

This is the painter’s interpretation of the scene in Bethlehem as Jews “from the House of David” came to register for the census decreed by Caesar Augustus.  Bruegel and his countrymen in sixteenth-century Brabant could identify with the Jews of Jesus’s time.  The Netherlands was suffering under the oppressive rule of the king of Spain in the same way that Judea had once shivered in the ominous shadow of the Emperor of Rome who had ordered the census.

Searching carefully among the tiny, busy figures near the center of the picture, I pick out a brown-robed man.  The large saw he is carrying over his shoulder shows that he is a carpenter.  He’s leading a little gray donkey on which is seated a young woman bundled in a blue blanket.  I can feel the sharp cold on my cheeks and hear the delighted shrieks of the children and the squeal of the unfortunate pig.  The smell of wood smoke sours the air.  As the couple and their donkey trudge wearily past me in the snow, I notice that the young woman, who is obviously pregnant, looks drawn and tired.  No one in the village is paying the least attention to them.  The children are absorbed in their play, the butchers and merchants are going about their business, and the grim-faced officials are taking their census.  The carpenter turns the donkey toward the crowded inn.  A sad sun hangs like a frozen orange in the black skeleton of a tree.

Two other visitors to the museum pause beside me for a moment to glance casually at the painting.  I ask myself, “Do they see Joseph and Mary?  What if they don’t know enough to look for the man with the saw and the girl on the donkey?”  I’m bursting to poke one of them and whisper, “Psst!  Do you see them?  They’re right there, in the middle, next to the man at the big wine barrel!”  But I hold myself back, and in a few seconds the visitors move on.

Peter Bruegel’s painting reminds us that Christmas is a very subtle feast – a celebration of God’s bashful, self-giving love and infinite humility.  The dull, understated colors in the painting convey this subtlety so perfectly that tourists in the museum look right at the picture without seeing what it is really about.  It is, of course, about love, Love that became a human being and dwelt among us.  But love comes quietly, even mysteriously sometimes.  The scene of the poor Flemish village occupied by foreign troops reminds us that God, like love itself, is somehow linked with the mystery of human suffering and the shadowy side of life.  We can almost hear the oppressed villagers in the painting complaining, at the very moment that the couple with the donkey walks past them, “Where is God?  Why is God so far away and unconcerned about our lives?”

This is why the holiday season always brings that awful letdown, that almost inevitable sense of disappointment.  It is not simply because reality can never live up to our idealized childhood memories or the romanticized scenes of Christmas we see on television.  A more fundamental reason lies in the mystery of Christmas itself: after all of the “hype” from the Old Testament prophets about the future Prince of Peace, after all of the Advent preparation for the coming of the “Desire of Nations,” Salvation finally arrives and what do we see?  Just a tired couple with a baby.  God has come to save us, sure, but as nothing more than an infant, a bundle of possibility, powerless and mute, vulnerable and unrecognizable.  This is the built-in disappointment of Christmas.  But this is also its greatness.

It is only in coming as a baby that God can assure the powerless that salvation doesn’t lie in might and mastery.  It is only by being born in a stable that God can persuade the poor that salvation doesn’t lie in wealth and economic security.  It is only by being born unnoticed in the obscurity of a small town that the King of Kings can convince the unloved that our salvation doesn’t lie in fame or popularity.  Emmanuel, God-with-us, comes as Mystery to be seen only with the eyes of faith.  God comes as a surprise, in a shocking reversal of this world’s wisdom.

Emmanuel enters the cold, busy villages of our lives all the time, often unfelt and unrecognized, the way the carpenter and his wife slip into this Flemish hamlet in the snow.  In fact, it is one of Benedict’s great spiritual principles that Christ is present in everyone around us.  When I walk into a hospital room to offer a cheering word to a depressed patient, Emmanuel is using my voice to come as the healer of the sick.  When a busy parent takes the time to sit down and go over a third-grader’s homework with her, this is Christ, Wisdom from on high, coming to Earth.  When someone refuses to join in an office joke that degrades women or some racial minority, the Sun of Justice is dawning a little more in our world.

A man in a dark blue suit walks into the center of the room and announces in a commanding voice that the museum is closing in a few minutes and everyone has to leave.  I take one final look at my favorite painting: a gray afternoon in a rundown village.  Just for practice I search the busy scene one more time, looking for the young couple and their donkey.


The discipline of Lent sharpens your ability to notice when God shows up.  It also makes you more willing and able to let Jesus use your hands and your voice so that he can become present to people in the world.  Think of someone in particular for whom you could be the presence of Christ through your kindness or your help.


Sacred Scripture (Galatians 2:20)

It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.


Rule of Benedict (Chapter 53, “The Reception of Guests,” v. 1)

All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

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