Incarnation Cycle

Using Inclusive Imagery to Support Participation in the Advent/Christmas Seasons

December 08, 2008

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Advent AltarIn the year of St Paul, it is timely to reflect again on participation. Paul’s whole approach to Christian living is underpinned by a theology of participation: "in Christ." Through our baptism we are initiated into a life "in Christ" and we become Christ bearers for the world. Further, the full and active participation by all the people in the liturgy is an expression of, and an embodied experience of, this life "in Christ."

It is my aim in this article to show how liturgical art can support participation in the liturgy through the use of inclusive imagery. The illustrations are of artwork I made for the Advent/Christmas season of 2005/6 (Year B) for my home parish in Brisbane, Australia.

What better way to reflect on participation than to focus on the great feast of the Incarnation, Christmas, which celebrates God’s ultimate act of engagement with creation. The Rainbow Spirit Elders, a group of Australian Aboriginal Christians, describe the Incarnation this way: "When the life-giving Creator Spirit took human form, God camped among us as a human being; God became one of us in our land, and became part of our culture." (1) If "God camped among us," then God’s participation came first and we were invited to join in. It was precisely this invitation to join in that we focused on at Our Lady of Mt Carmel in our Advent preparations in 2005.

The images we eventually used emerged directly from the flow of ideas generated within the liturgy committee discussions. We began by prayerfully reflecting on the readings for the season. They suggested to us that Advent was a time of waiting for the fulfillment of God's dream: the Incarnation and the full realisation of the Kingdom. The notion of dreaming took hold in our collective imagination and shaped our liturgies during the season. Knowing that dreaming had great resonance in traditional Aboriginal culture added a rich layer of meaning.

Advent Banner GreenMy task, as liturgical artist, was to turn the idea of dreaming into images.  The series of dream banners that I made for Advent reflected ideas arising from the Sunday gospel readings.

The week before Advent I went to a weekday Mass and asked a few parishioners to pose while I took head and shoulders photos with my digital camera. Later, I used Photoshop to reduce the images to black and white. I then printed them on sheets of coloured A4 paper. These became the star gazers for the first dream banners.

Then after Mass every Sunday during Advent, I invited parishioners to pose for photos. At first they were hesitant, but then they got into the spirit of the project, and I was really surprised at how willing they were to lend their faces to the dream banners. Knowing that inclusivity is a radical form of participation, I consciously sought out people of all ages, genders, and ethnic backgrounds. However, I did not have to work very hard at encouraging people; in the end, there were so many volunteers that I had to put the images on both sides of the banners to fit them all in.

Advent Banner OrangeEach of the banners had a number of "dream tickets" hanging from them. The tickets invited parishioners to take one free; the ticket gave an expiry date as "eternity." The hospitality ministers handed out more "dream tickets" to parishioners as they arrived for the Sunday Masses. These tickets had the gospel reading of the day printed on one side to encourage people to engage with the liturgy and to reflect on the meanings of the season.

One of our liturgy committee members wrote a dreaming statement for each of the four Sunday gospel readings:

Stay awake to God's dream (Mk 13:31-37)
Prepare to follow God's dream (Mk 1:1-8)
Called to live God's dream (Jn 1:6-8; 19-28)
Responding to God's dream (Lk 1:26-38)

These statements were the focus of the short reflections I wrote in the newsletter each week of Advent. For the third week I wrote the following:

"Called to Live God's Dream

Who is called to live God's dream? If you and I are not, who is? Yes we, the parishioners of Mt Carmel are called to be people of the dream.

We can learn from Aboriginal people when it comes to dreaming. Their dreaming is holistic - the natural world, the social world and the spiritual world are not separate things, but interconnected. That does not mean that there are no holes, or cracks, or dark places in their vision of the universe. Right relationships have to be maintained within this holistic vision.

We Christians envisage the creation as 'becoming' whole. Living the dream of that wholeness is to live in hope. Living in hope means believing in God's promise of the Kingdom. It also means being alert to the signs that the Kingdom is a here and now 'becoming' reality, which is at work in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. It is the light in the darkness.

The Kingdom is at work here and now. Look around you, but don't just look at charming faces and the beauties of the natural world. Check out the distressing faces of street folk or those places we make ugly with strip mines and urban junk. The Kingdom is a reality there too - ugliness and distress challenge us to live God's dream."

Getting the balance between the idealistic dreaming imagery and the here-and-now lives of Mt Carmel parishioners was a challenge. Also, I hoped that these reflections would give some insights into the connections between dreaming and all that we did, heard, said, sung, saw, tasted and touched during the Advent liturgies.

The liturgy committee made sure that the dreaming image was reflected in the various prayers, actions, and music, for example "Beyond the Moon and Stars" by Dan Schutte was used as a Communion hymn during the season. The ritual for the lighting of the Advent wreath candles began with a blessing: "The Second Advent candle lights the way for us while we prepare to follow God's dream through the wilderness of our lives. As we bless . . ."

Our wreath was separated into four parts, each with a circle of green and a candle. The four parts of the wreath were placed at stations around the assembly space: one was near the altar, another at the front entrance, and the other two were on opposite sides of the celebrating space. Consequently, the assembly was inside the wreath and surrounded by a circle of light. For the lighting, we used another Dan Schutte song, "Christ Circle Round Us."  Later the Christmas candle was placed at the centre of the assembly space so that the light was at the heart of the people.

The alignment of dreaming with stargazing seemed particularly apt during Advent. However, dreaming/stargazing can be a very esoteric and ungrounded activity, which is why I used Mt Carmel parishioners as stargazers on the dream banners. The images identified us as the people for whom the Incarnation happened: "Yes we, the parishioners of Mt Carmel are called to be people of the dream."

Parishioners really wanted to participate in the Advent project, not because they sought a spurious five minutes of fame in the community; rather, it was because their senses, imagination, and intellect were engaged in a pleasurable, thought-provoking and prayerful interaction with the liturgy. Also, they had an opportunity to share directly in the liturgical meaning-making process. This is how inclusive imagery can serve parish liturgy: by supporting the full and active participation of all the people.

(1) Rainbow Spirit Elders, Rainbow Spirit Theology: Toward an Australian Aboriginal Theology (East Melbourne: HarperCollins Religious, 1997) 59.

Dr. Jennifer Close is a liturgist in Brisbane, Australia. She works part-time as a liturgical artist and lecturer in theology at the Australian Catholic University. She earned her Ph.D. in theology in 2005; her dissertation was titled "A Feminist Understanding of Liturgical Art."


Advent and Christmas Down Under

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