Christmas says God is with us
By Harold Jantz
On the entrance wall of Soul Sanctuary, a Winnipeg church, hang a series of five paintings by Wilma Derksen dedicated to her daughter Candace, unveiled there at the opening ceremony of the church in mid-September of this year.
The paintings are all in white and partly construction art, with an underlay of pages from an old family Bible. Wilma says the paintings “hold the vision of the church to be an uncommon church to speak to a generation that has been called by many sociologists the most spiritually seeking generation of human history.” They depict something tattered and worn transformed into panels of beauty and grace.
The art is a metaphor for Christmas fleshed out.
It is exactly 30 years ago that the Derksens lost their daughter at the hands of an assailant who left her to die in a little shed next to the Nairn Avenue overpass. It changed everything for them and in a way that should not surprise anyone who shares their faith, brought about much good.
A few weeks ago the Derksens held a 30th anniversary memorial to mark what happened in their family and to bring an offering of thanks to some of those who accompanied them on their decades-long journey. One of remarkable elements of the event was a brief review of some permanent institutions that have come about because of Candace's death.
One is the Candace Derksen Memorial Pool at Camp Arnes. The Derksens loved swimming together and Cliff was on staff at the camp when Candace disappeared. Another is the Canadian Centre for Child Protection (known first as Child Find Manitoba), which too was inspired by Candace's disappearance and will mark its 30th anniversary in April. Another is the remarkable Candace Derksen Fund with the Winnipeg Foundation, begun in memory of Candace by prisoners—yes, prisoners—serving life sentences, to enable victims of crime to set up healing programs. Candace House—still in the works—is intended to be a shelter and resource within walking distance of the law courts buildings for victims of serious crime whose cases are in the courts. Then there are the paintings, statements in white of the way the dark and ugly in life can be transformed into objects of beauty. And for many years, Wilma has travelled, written and worked to help victims of crime find healing and peace, at times with MCC and at times on her own.
Christmas in its simplest terms is about God entering human history in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, for the redemption of humanity. The theological term is incarnation, God taking on human flesh. As Scott Cairns says in God With Us, “His coming in the flesh—this Mystery we prepare to glimpse again—confirms that he is to be touched.” God makes himself known, this God who is beyond comparison and in some senses unknowable, makes himself known by coming to live among us. He did it two thousand years ago when he was born to a young woman in Bethlehem and he does it again by those who have embraced Jesus and are a part of his body now, as are Cliff and Wilma. And as real as are the reminders of Candace in the institutions the Derksens helped create, so real was Jesus when he walked on this earth.
One of the New Testament writers, the Apostle John, was concerned to make that point clear. He wrote: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes...and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed and we have seen it and testify to it.”
Nowhere is the meaning of God becoming flesh made more clear than in a story once told by Jesus, the parable of the prodigal son.
Those who know Rembrandt's painting called Return of the Prodigal Son, in The Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, will remember it as a depiction of that parable. In it, the father, who represents God, is shown embracing a wayward son who demanded his share of a family inheritance and then promptly wasted it with profligate living, among prostitutes and fickle friends. When he had nothing left and is reduced to tending pigs, and can't even eat the pods the pigs are fed, he comes to his senses and decides to return home, though, he says to himself, not as a son but only a servant.
The painting has the father taking him back as a son in an enveloping embrace with the light casting the focus on the father's hands, one clearly strong and muscular and the other gentle and tender. Henri Nouwen, who wrote a book on the painting, says it has both a mother's and a father's touch and it represents the healing of this son's past and restoration to full sonship.
This is the Christian message about Christmas. In a way that can never be fully grasped even when believed, Christmas represents healing and restoration for all the waywardness and brokenness of our world. One need only think of the CBC's recent rude confrontation with a darkness within itself to see how needed such redemption might be. Or of the barrenness of an economy that can see some people growing richer and richer while ever more people find themselves in need of food banks. Or of the resort to violence in so many settings. In that light, the decision of prisoners to establish a fund in honour of Candace is surely a beautiful thing. It's their act of penance. And the paintings at Soul Sanctuary are an invitation to see the possibility of redemption and transformation in the child born to be a Saviour. This is God's divine mystery, whether or not we can recognize it as individuals or as communities, wrapped up in this wonderful season of the year.
Harold Jantz is retired Christian editor and occasional writer. He is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you Harold for your gift of writing! Your words are a comfort. W