-by Pieter Bruegel der Ältere – Landschaft mit der Flucht nach Ägypten, Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, 1563, 37.1 × 55.6 cm (14.6 × 21.9 in), Pieter Bruegel the Elder – The Courtauld Institute of Art, London, UK. Please click on the image for greater detail.
-by Br Gabriel Theis, OP, English Province
“The motif seems all too familiar, and maybe not related to Advent itself: We see the Holy Family after Jesus’ birth on their flight to Egypt (Mt 2:13–14). Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s depiction of the scene, which I saw in an exhibition in Vienna, is set in an alpine landscape familiar to the artist. Bruegel’s interpretation follows the conventions of his time: While the broad and beautiful landscape captivates our attention, the small protagonists can easily escape our eyes. The naiveté and plainness of this depiction deceives us though: Bruegel’s famous Wimmelbilder or ‘swarm pictures’ require special concentration for their hidden details. This may remind us of our contact with biblical texts or matters of faith in general: While they appear rather simple and straightforward on the surface, we discover more and more depth by reflecting on them time and time again.
In the case of the Flight into Egypt, Bruegel hides some details that stir up the superficial tranquility of the scene and, I think, our approach to Advent as well. One of the trees that the Holy Family has just passed contains an idol falling to the ground: Bruegel thereby hints at an apocryphal story about Jesus’ arrival at an Egyptian temple, where all idols fell to the ground, thus bowing to His Divinity. By coming into our own lives, Jesus necessarily also overthrows all false idols, concepts and expectations – everything that wants to force Him into our little schemes, even if it is just our longing for the wrong kind of peace. Yes, Advent exists to console us – but not with the riches of this world, but with the poor boy in the crib, who “became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). We find truth not in vain kinds of philosophy (Col 2:8) or cleverly devised myths (2 Pet 1:16), but in Christ alone; and our lives should give testimony of our bowing to His truth that often contradicts our worldly standards.
Another example of this ‘stirring-up’ of our desire for harmony and cosiness is found even closer to the Holy Family: Two lizards symbolise the evil that fights against Christ from the moment of His birth, and which he has to defeat in order to bring harmony and peace. We should understand Advent as a time in which our remembrance of Christ’s arrival in the world encourages us to take up our own fight against all restlessness and wickedness in our lives.
This will not work without an honest effort: And if we look closely, we see Joseph struggling to keep the donkey on his path, as we often fight against our own limitations; we also notice how Our Lady has sunk down on the donkey, obviously exhausted from the tiring journey. We are often tired of personal and professional duties and obligations; and looking at the vast landscape in Bruegel’s painting, we might feel discouraged by the long path that lies ahead.
However, these emotions of emptiness and darkness must not have the final say. We are not alone on our paths: Bruegel hides three other wanderers on the left side of his painting, which pave the way for the Holy Family; and most of us know someone who helps us carry the burden of life, and many of us bear at least a small part of someone else’s load. And of course, we have Christ, who carried all our afflictions when He put the cross on His shoulder; He came into this world to take our burden from us and to give us His own yoke, which is light and easy (Mt 11:30).
In this time of Advent, when we remember and look forward to His coming, let us stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near (Lk 21:28).”
Love & safety,
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "“Si comprehendus, non est Deus.” -St Augustine, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "And above all, be on your guard not to want to get anything done by force, because God has given free will to everyone and wants to force no one, but only proposes, invites and counsels." –St. Angela Merici, “Yet such are the pity and compassion of this Lord of ours, so desirous is He that we should seek Him and enjoy His company, that in one way or another He never ceases calling us to Him . . . God here speaks to souls through words uttered by pious people, by sermons or good books, and in many other such ways.” —St. Teresa of Avila, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it."- Bl John Henry Newman, Cong. Orat., "We cannot always have access to a spiritual Father for counsel in our actions and in our doubts, but reading will abundantly supply his place by giving us directions to escape the illusions of the devil and of our own self-love, and at the same time to submit to the divine will.” —St. Alphonsus Ligouri, "The harm that comes to souls from the lack of reading holy books makes me shudder . . . What power spiritual reading has to lead to a change of course, and to make even worldly people enter into the way of perfection." –St. Padre Pio, "Screens may grab our attention, but books change our lives!" – Word on Fire, "Reading has made many saints!" -St Josemaría Escrivá, "Do you pray? You speak to the Bridegroom. Do you read? He speaks to you." —St. Jerome, from his Letter 22 to Eustochium, "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, "God here speaks to souls through…good books“ – St Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, "You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” -St Athanasius, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori "Never read books you aren't sure about. . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?" -St. John Bosco " To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer." —St. Thomas Aquinas, OP. "Prayer purifies us, reading instructs us. Both are good when both are possible. Otherwise, prayer is better than reading." –St. Isidore of Seville “The aid of spiritual books is for you a necessity.… You, who are in the midst of battle, must protect yourself with the buckler of holy thoughts drawn from good books.” -St. John Chrysostom