A decade ago my supposed specialty was in prevention. In more recent years I have advocated resilience. Over the last year I have focused mostly on catastrophe.
This trend may seem pessimistic. But the goal remains to prevent – or at least mitigate – the experience of harm.
We live in a world well-acquainted with suffering and grief. This will persist.
If we can predict anything, we can be sure of earthquake, hurricane, fire, flood, death and taxes. We can be equally sure the violence of an infinitesimal few will trouble and terrorize whole nations. Future historians may well call this the Age of Terror. This is our shared narrative, the apparent plot of the play in which we find ourselves.
This is why I wish you a catastrophic Christmas.
In his analysis of tragedy, Aristotle explains that katastrophe – often translated as reversal of fortune – “is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite… Thus in the Oedipus the messenger comes to cheer Oedipus and free him from his alarms about his mother, but by revealing who he is, produces the opposite effect.” (Poetics XI, scroll to bottom of link.)
For Christians the birth of Jesus remains a catastrophic event. The plot of our play has been permanently altered.
The painting is Mystic Nativity by Sandro Botticelli. The inscription along the top reads: “This picture, at the end of the year 1500, in the troubles of Italy, I Alessandro, in the half-time after the time, painted, according to the eleventh chapter of Saint John in the second woe of the Apocalypse, during the release of the devil for three-and-a-half years; then he shall be bound in the twelfth chapter and we shall see him buried as in this picture.”
Botticelli was sure he was living through the end-times described in the Revelation according to St. John. His was a troubled time full of religious, political, and economic convulsion. Yet we now look back and see – especially in the art, architecture, and literature emerging from the struggle – an apogee of human creativity.
Commenting on Mystic Nativity, Sir Kenneth Clarke wrote, “This vision of joy and love has not been achieved, as in a Buddhist painting, by peaceful contemplation, but through participation in disasters.”
The key is how we choose to participate. Botticelli kept painting. He found in his art and faith the strength to keep creating, even as all around him others chose to destroy.
We are each co-authors of the play. The plot is ours to choose and – with our neighbors – to craft meaning from the troubles that will surely come. May we choose joy and love.
More is available on Mystic Nativity from the National Gallery of Art (London).