by the Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy

When we talk about Jesus as ‘the Word made flesh’, we are making an amazing statement about God in our midst. That God feels, sees, hears and senses as we do. In the midst of great throngs, who were often pressing hard on him, and presumably jostling him too, Jesus was always strangely alert to other things. But alert to what, exactly? We already know that Jesus was somebody who healed nobodies. The gospels in most cases don’t even bother to name the afflicted individuals.

“The people Jesus healed were mostly outsiders whose storie were ‘unpublished’…”

The people Jesus healed were mostly outsiders, whose stories were ‘unpublished’, which is the literal meaning of the word ‘anecdote’. It is the small, unpublished stories that Jesus constantly turns to. The small man who cannot see, Jesus sees. The small voice in the crowd, to whom all else are deaf, Jesus hears. For the untouched body in the pressing throng, that all will flinch from, Jesus feels and embraces. For the person that no-one associates with, Jesus will feast with them, savouring their food and drink, their meals and hospitality. The incarnate body of Jesus is richly sensate to the ‘unpublished’. So, this is an incarnate body that feels and touches, smells and hears, sees and tastes. And that is what John’s gospel means when it says ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth’. The grace here is the grace of God; he loves the unloved; and seeks the lost. All are loved equally by God. So Jesus dwells with his people, beginning with the most marginalised.

“…this is an incarnate body that feels and touches, smells and hears, sees and tastes.”

I chose the painting from Breughel to illustrate Jesus among us – and at the darkest time of our year, in winter. It is a bright picture, but bleak too. Fittingly, our painting features a scene that is all too familiar at this time of year: people waiting in a long, slow queue. Perhaps for the winter sales? Or just for their winter fuel allowance? You can almost feel the cold. They are waiting: queuing to have their names taken by some officials who sit on the veranda. One can imagine the long delays; the boredom of children in the long line of people waiting to be processed; the tedium of a long journey simply to give your name, address and occupation.

In Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s The Census at Bethlehem (painted around 1580), we are offered a contemporary take on the story of the incarnation. His picture is filled with men, women, children and animals, going about the common business of living.

There are hundreds of figures in this village scene, going about their daily chores: no-one sees anything unusual. In this winter scene, children skate and lob snowballs. Others warm themselves by stoves, and watch the world go by. The extensive amount of wintry snow makes this a chilly, slightly forbidding picture. Brueghel wants us to enter into the village and orient ourselves as any other visitor would have done. When we get our bearings we notice that a crowd of people is collecting in front of the building in the foreground to the left. Just inside, some men sit at a table examining documents, and making notes in a ledger. The villagers crowd around waiting to be examined; there seems to be a lot going on.

Reading the painting from left to right we can’t help noticing two large wooden Os made by the wheels of some hay wagons.

Here, the circle has been universally accepted as the symbol of eternity and everlasting existence.

As the monogram for God it stands for both the perfection and the eternity of God. Then we notice a young woman on a horse led by a man on foot. The woman is almost hidden by her heavy winter clothing but we realize this is Mary.

“…to look for Christ in the ordinary bustle of waiting and queuing…”

So we turn to Brueghel’s intention as an artist, who deliberately loses Mary and Joseph in the crowd, and conceals Mary’s pregnancy under a heavy winter coat. He seems to be saying we must actively look for Jesus. This is a kind of sixteenth century Where’s Wally?

In Bruegel’s picture, heaven has come to earth. Bruegel instructs us to look for Christ in the ordinary bustle of waiting and queuing; for Jesus is in the midst of us. Even in the depths of a dark, cold winter, Jesus comes to abide with us. So most of the characters he portrays do not sense, see or hear anything unusual at all.

They go about their daily business. Yet Jesus is already in their midst. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem puts it well:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes –
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

The Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy is the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford.

The Census at Bethlehem (oil on panel) by Brueghel, Pieter the Younger . Musée des Beaux-Arts, Arras, France. Copyright:

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