Embodied Joy, Serious Joy: Making Room in Body & Life for New Creation
Image: Louise Henderson, October, 1987, oil on canvas, 2500 x 1500mm, from the series The Twelve Months (1987)
Devotional reading based on Luke 1:41-55
I discovered the artist Louise Henderson when I was in New Zealand around Thanksgiving this year. My husband and I were exploring The Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki when we came to a long passage lined with Henderson’s paintings from her series The Twelve Months (1987). Although we knew it would be early summer when we went, more than walking around in t-shirts and shorts in November, I was struck by the visual reversal of nature and time in Henderson’s work, the binary experience of seasons of the northern and the southern hemispheres.
In the first image here, October, Henderson has a cropped representation of a pregnant woman, her belly bright and fruitful as a melon, shines with what Henderson describes from her own pregnancy as “bubbles of life circulating in the womb.” She magnifies joy from its tiniest beginnings both seen and unseen in the mother and the child. Henderson’s image offers the idea that time can be a pilgrimage with interruptions of joy during mystery and darkness (literally the baby’s experience in the womb). Imagine the unborn John's joy when he sensed his Lord, still smaller than a mustard seed, even from within the womb. Imagine Mary’s joy when she felt the first flutters, then hard kicks even as she fled her community.
I learned of my own pregnancy last October, the wonder, disbelief and almost out of body experience when I saw the positive pink sign on the pregnancy kit. Although I didn’t see an outward change at first, a new life was taking shape inside of me, forever changing how I understood “me”. Later last winter, my husband and I were on an arts mission trip to Poland, a country still recovering half a century after genocide and Nazi occupation. As we stumbled against the snow and bitter cold in the inhumane darkness of the Auschwitz concentration camp, the nearby villages gleamed with festival brightness and shops sold Auschwitz souvenirs and Christmas decorations. I wondered what light and darkness my son would see and what he would make of it. I’m convinced Mary had to wonder these same questions over her unborn child too.
Eugene H. Peterson writes in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, “Just as joy builds on the past, it borrows from the future. It expects certain things to happen.” In Mary’s song, we see clearly that Mary’s joy in her pregnancy wasn’t for the gift of pregnancy itself but that God truly saw her in her poverty and would distinguish this new act of creation, the Incarnation, from all other kingdoms with radical generosity and imagination. She breaks out in song for God’s faithfulness to His promise with strong words far from delicate on justice and mercy long foretold. Mary embodies joy, a serious joy.
 Bronwyn Lloyd, Finding Louise Henderson, Art News New Zealand, Summer 2019, p. 79
Image: Louise Henderson, December, 1987, oil on canvas, 2500 x 1500mm, from the series The Twelve Months (1987)
The Twelve Months, like the Psalms of Ascent (Ps.120-134), lead up to December, our second image here. December, which seems hurried, is a careful construct of a bright New Zealand summer tied with traditional Christmas notes of red, green and white. The joyful pink in this summer image awkwardly bumps against our Northern Hemisphere’s romantic notions of a “white” Christmas that is tied to a bygone era.
This past Sunday, the beginning of the third week of Advent, we lit the rose candle of Joy in our Advent wreath. December reminds me of the traditional German Christmas carol, Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming, when I look at the delicate pink that wraps around the gift that is December. Henderson takes this clash of colors and binds them with a golden figure 8. Whether Henderson chose the figure 8 for aesthetic reasons, symbolic power or both, I don’t know but the number eight is a sign of the new covenant that bridges the Old and New Testaments. On the seventh day, God brings about completion, wholeness or harmony with nature. On the eighth day, He transcends nature with gifts and redeemed imagination in His people. In the Old Testament, Hebrew boys were to be circumcised on the eighth day to show God’s transcendent power at work in their lives. In the New Testament, baptism replaces the sign of circumcision and the eighth day is known as the day of Resurrection or New Creation
Standing before Henderson’s images of pilgrimage, pregnancy, generosity and imagination, I’ve wrestled with my cultural ideas about Christmas. I wonder if my hope and joy for the holidays is domesticated, fixed in my ideas of what makes a “merry” Christmas. Do I truly long for God’s justice and mercy, for a new creation to break forth?
The Magnification by Marcus Walton
These dreams I cannot touch
This life inside of me
I cannot grasp
But I can’t not see
And I dream of the day
When all shall be taken, shaken up
When the ones who drink first
Will be the ones with broken cups
They’re lifted, the weak
By the Lord’s great strength
And the ones holding power
Should watch their steps and backs
And if you’re wondering
Who will be at God’s feast
It won’t be the rich, but the hungry
I can’t not see the Holy One
Whose mercy covers everyone
Every one is seen in their pain, their beauty
God can’t not see
I can’t not see how good the Lord is
His healing has reached my deepest places
He’s looked down on me
Down at the bottom here
And see, now everyone will see
How good God’s been to me
My first ultrasound of Anselm: