Don’t ‘Paint Over’ the Truths of Christmas
The painting “Belezaire and the Frey Children” depicts three white children in their 19th century finery. Painted in about 1837, for generations, the “Belezaire” of the portrait was missing.
Then, a few years ago, a restoration of the painting uncovered a slender African American youth of about 15, arms folded and looking into the distance, resting against a tree. Records show that Belezaire remained in slavery, eventually living in New Orleans. When that city surrendered to federal forces in 1861, Belezaire disappears from history.
Why was Belezaire’s figure painted over? We will never know why, even as we are unlikely to know what happened to Belezaire. But reading about the portrait has made me wonder about the things we might “paint over” in our walks with God, things we think we can hide from Him or other matters we simply choose not to contemplate because they are too painful.
Maybe it’s a problem with substance abuse or an addiction to pornography. Or it could be that the smiling face of Sunday morning masks depression or loss. Trauma, too, can haunt us, arising in our minds unexpectedly and grimly. We force ourselves to squeeze it from our thoughts even as we know that storing it away doesn’t remove it.
God’s word gives us the promise of healing from our pain and strength and wisdom to deal with habitual sin. There are many resources that can help us access the grace that Jesus promises is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).
Yet I wonder if there’s something else we sometimes “paint over” — the reality of Christ Himself. The majesty of the angels’ announcement to men tending their flocks, the sweetness of a baby in a manger, lying in a bed of hay surrounded by animals and shepherds, a loving virgin mother and devoted adoptive father: There’s nothing wrong with thinking about these things.
But if we stop there, we forget the purpose of His coming. “Bound up in the Christmas message of the incarnation is the Easter message of the atonement,” wrote the late theologian J.I. Packer. “For if Jesus was not God made man, then we remain in our sins.” These are tidings of comfort and joy, of mystery and severity, of the cruelty of the cross and the resplendence of the resurrection. As the Puritan John Owen wrote, “The depths of this mystery are open only unto Him whose understanding is infinite, which no created understanding can comprehend.”
At Christmas, we dare not leave the baby swaddled in the feeding trough. The beauty of His coming and the majesty of eternal God clothing Himself in human flesh join with so much more. His youth as a skilled laborer, the power and compassion of His ministry, miracles unlike any before or since, the temple guards exclaiming, “No one ever taught like this man!” (John 7:46). He spoke like no one else, with wisdom, bravery, truth, and love; as Peter said to Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).
The Australian pastor Adam Ramsey has written, “The meaning of Christmas goes miles deeper than family traditions, pretty lights, and a chance to refresh your depleted stockpile of socks.” Christians know this, but do we take time to meditate on what Christmas does mean? If Christmas busyness is keeping us from taking a bit of time to quietly and calmly turn our hearts and minds to the fulness of Jesus, His life and redemption and promised return, then we’re simply too busy.
Jesus said that if we seek first His kingdom and righteousness, the things we need will be provided (Matthew 6:33). That doesn’t mean that the presents you want to give will just magically appear under the tree or that meals will prepare themselves. It means that if our primary focus is on gifts and events and the effervescent “happiness of the season,” we are idolizing things that don’t last. The best gift we can give our loved ones is a life in which the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Christ is present.
We don’t know what happened to Belezaire, but we know the One Who came to die and rise and live and come again. This is the glory and the gladness of Christmas.
Rob Schwarzwalder, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.