They had, I think, the faces of angels. They stood in the school gymnasium, a cluster of eight-year-olds singing Christmas carols with glad abandon. My wife and I had come along to a rehearsal because our schedules had conflicted and we would be unable to see the final, end-of-term production. So we found ourselves, that moist and English November morning, seated like uncertain royalty on child-sized chairs.
We had come simply to watch. But as we sat among the drums and chimes and general disorder of children set free to have fun, a curious fact slowly dawned on us. We were, to paraphrase Lear, more looked upon than looking. By laws which every mother discovers when first her child says "watch me," we found ourselves participants in that age-old relationship of player to audience. Wordsheets before them, the children crowded around us, trying to hold themselves to the task at hand. But they were frankly more interested in our responses than in their own accuracy. We were there, they knew, not only to take but to give. Like mothers through the centuries, we had our role: we were the enthusiastic bringers-out of the great gift of performance. What they wanted, simply, was our closeness.
For there is surrounding childhood a sense of closeness and affection which, because it is inarticulate, would be impossible to describe had we not all been children ourselves. Isolated neither from each other nor from adults, young children, like coals in a grate, drew warmth and energy from one another. Adults are different: put two in an empty railway car, and they sit in opposite corners. Give children a chance, and they will all sit down on top of one another.
That sense of closeness, I suppose, is what we mean by "a mother's love" -- a phrase which, because it stands for something in the realm of feeling and not intellect, is sadly overlooked by those who believe that what cannot be rationally analyzed does not much matter. Yet this very idea, I think, underpins the best of Christmas traditions.
Christmas is a time for children, for closeness, for uncluttered, warm responses --still tell stories of "Father Christmas." But those, like the paganism out of which they grew, yield readily to the story that gave the world Christmas: the story of the Nativity. And that is a story about mothering -- about finding the right balance between tender solicitude and trusting release, between keeping hold of the tiny child and letting him go into a wider world -- which also devolves upon fathers.
That, it seems to me, is the particular genius of Leonardo's "Virgin and Child with Saint Anne." True, the powerfully pyramidal composition deserves analysis, and the iconography of sheep, tree, path, ledge, and landscape warrants exegesis. These are subjects in which the intellect may take high delight. But beyond is the feeling. It is, obviously, one of closeness -- of a family group not ashamed to touch, to sit right on top of one another.
Look closely at the face of Saint Anne. There is in it a sense of contentment, of rest, of placid appreciation for the two generations of her family upon which she gazes. In her, Leonardo traces motherhood back to a pure fountain of inspiration and forward to a fulfillment which few artists, no matter how profound their satisfaction in a painting completed or a poem written , have ever felt as deeply. It is the fulfillment of a desire so simple as to be nearly invisible among the more clamorous ones of our age -- a desire to give to the world an idea which, beautiful in itself, leads others to greater beauty.
And if, for Leonardo, Anne's work is done and she rests in contemplation, Mary's is still in progress. Her look, drawn as it is in close family resemblance to the features of Anne, nevertheless mingles with its tenderness a sobering wisdom, a sense of participation in the needs and concerns of the child beside her. In the indescribable smile, in the slight turn of the head, and in the energized yet relaxed posture, there is something profound yet uncomplicated , an awareness of the world's dangers coupled with a deep trust in her family's protection.
It is in Mary, after all, that Leonardo paints the great question concerning the nature of mothering. For what, we must ask, is she doing? Is she restraining him as he gestures almost impatiently toward the waiting world? OR is she helping him up so he can go his way?
I like to think it's both. And I think, too, that what Mary is doing here is just what contemporary Christianity most needs to do. We have come grandly through centuries of awareness of the Fatherhood of God. But the Motherhood? So often, I think, we have relegated that to a pedestal, set it out as something to look upon like parents in a gymnasium. We have seen it less as a trhiving, self-effacing bringer-out of human creativity than as a subservient and slightly timid set of attitudes to be appreciated but quickly outgrown.
Leonardo asked a question of his age. Let us ask another of our own. What would happen if all of us -- men and women alike -- determined to put into practice the real sense of mother-love that Mary must have felt? What if, in the surge and fervor of daily life, we found ourselves mirroring her qualities to a world so much in need of them? What if, in our relations with all our creative ideas, we simultaneously supported and released the completed thought, however infantile it might seem? What if we found, in every affectionate gesture, a sense of mother love that was neither irresponsible nor anxious, neither dismissive nor worried? What if we brought into simultaneous expression the three qualities -- the closeness, the restraint, and the release -- that Leonardo finds in his family portrait?
That, for me, would be Christmas.