Brightness of the Firmament
Brightness of the Firmament is a triptych of images referring to the three feasts following the great celebration of the Mystery of the Incarnation: Christmas.
The central panel refers to the Feast of St. Stephen, December 26. St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr and deacon, was stoned for his witness. The book of Acts notes that as he died he prayed for his murderers: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” This prayer can be found, in German, in the central panel’s banner. Stones are depicted in the lower right and left corners of the panel. The upper corners bear images of holly berries and leaves, traditional symbols of Christ’s passion, providing a Christian rationale for the pagan custom of decorating homes with holly for its apotropaic effect. In Ireland, local folklore says that during the stoning of Stephen, the Saint attempted to hide, but that a wren’s song attracted the unwanted attention of his persecutors. This led to the once popular custom amongst children of killing a wren (to revenge Stephen’s death), affixing the bird’s body to a stick or board and going from house to house begging for sweets or money to lay the bird to rest. It is this custom that is celebrated in the old Wren Song, the chorus of which is, “Up with the kettle and down with the pan, / And give us a penny to bury the wren.”
The left panel commemorates the Feast of St. John, the Beloved Disciple, December 27. St. John is held to be the author of the Gospel and Epistles bearing his name, as well as the Apocalypse. It has long been the tradition of the Church to assign one of the faces of the Four Living Creatures standing before the throne of God (as depicted in the Apocalypse) to the Gospellers and their Gospels. John’s symbol became the eagle (that mounts high to see the things of heaven), depicted here in the upper corners of the panel, a fitting attribution for the one who reclined on Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper, listening to the heartbeat of the Incarnate Deity. A legend concerning St. John states that, having been given a poisoned cup from which to drink, the Saint made the sign of the cross over it, at which point the poison escaped in the form of a deadly serpent. Above the cup and serpent is a banner reading, “In the beginning was the Word,” in Greek, from the incipit of John’s Gospel, which is appointed to be read at Mass on Christmas morning.
The right panel is for the Feast of the Holy Innocents, December 28. The Holy Innocents were the children of Bethlehem, murdered at King Herod’s behest; in his attempt to destroy the infant Jesus, he ordered that all the male children in Bethlehem under three years of age be put to the sword. The banner bears the first line from the hymn appointed in the Office for this Feast, “Hail thou martyr flowers,” and indeed tradition holds that the Innocents were the earliest martyrs (though the dignity of being the first Christian martyr goes to St. Stephen). Scripture states that before Herod’s massacre, St. Joseph was warned to flee with his family to Egypt where, it is believed, all of the idols of that land shattered when the Holy Family entered therein. The statutes of Isis and her son Horus are crumbling atop their pillars in the uppermost part of this panel. (Many early images of the Madonna and Child are modeled after images of the infant Horus sitting in his mother’s lap.)
The banner that surmounts all three panels is taken from one of the Psalm antiphons appointed for the Feast of St. Stephen. It can easily be said, however, of St. John and the martyred children of Bethlehem, as well as of all our friends and family who have joined the saints in that Heavenly Country
By Mark Schultz