Going about my day I can easily forget the flooding in Yellowstone, hungry children, mass shootings of other people just going about their day, and gruesome wars. I forget to look until W.H. Auden reminds me of the whole story and our tendency to avoid it in his poem “Musee des Beaux Arts.” (printed below)
Auden considers two paintings: scenes of a pregnant Mary entering Bethlehem, and the Icarus’s fall from the sky, wings having melting from going too close to the sun. Breugel the Elder and Breughel the Younger set these in Flanders and have much to show.
On December 24, we tend not to consider the whole story. Auden guides us through to Breughel painting to remind us the amazing gift of Jesus’s birth, the Incarnation, will lead, too, to the slaughter of the Innocents when King Herod has all children in Bethlehem under two murdered in case one is the new king of the Jews. The whole story is not a new concept. There is a Midrash in Judaism, the stories between the lines in the Bible, which shows God weeping for the Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea after the Hebrew people pass through. The Egyptians are God’s children, too. The story is not so simple.
My great-grandfather was an extraordinarily kind and helpful man according to his funeral booklet. After fighting for the Union in the Civil War he helped his family settle and build reasonably successful farms and communities in Richland Center, Wisconsin and Ewington, Minnesota. He worked very hard, was compassionate, and did not complain of his ongoing ill health thanks to war injuries. This is but one part of the story.
I admire him and others who built farms and communities, but I still do not know much about the indigenous people who were living in the areas my great-grandfather farmed. Were they slaughtered by whole villages as happened to the Iroquois in the Clinton-Sullivan Revolutionary War campaign here in Central New York? I sense it is time we learn the whole story.
By a similar token, I become absorbed in my own life concerns and forget the children killed in Uvalde and the Black Americans murdered at a grocery store in Buffalo. I can forget people rushed the U.S. Capitol and waved Confederate flags inside it, something that did not even happen in the Civil War. I can forget those dying of overdoses or in need of housing or work. I can simply not notice the young man falling from the sky, a victim of his own hubris.
Our own lives are of value, and our attention to daily tasks helps us survive. Yet, as we keep going about our business, as we tell stories we have heard of our past, let us intentionally make room for the whole story, for noticing the suffering, for seeing all God’s children and creation.
With every blessing,
Musee des Beaux Arts W.H. Auden About the suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters: how well they understood Its human position; how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening a window or just Walking dully along; How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting For the miraculous birth, there always must be Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating On a pond at the edge of the wood: They never forgot That even dreadful martyrdom must run its course Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot Where the dogs go on with the doggy Life and the torturer’s horse Scratches its innocent behind on a tree. In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance; how everything turns away Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may Have hear the splash, the forsaken cry, But for him it was not an important failure: the sun shone As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.