Holy Family: On Jane Kenyon’s “Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, Winter 1993”

Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, Winter 1993 (from “The Writer’s Almanac”)
Jane Kenyon

On the domed ceiling God
is thinking:
I made them my joy,
and everything else I created
I made to bless them.
But see what they do!
I know their hearts
and arguments:

“We’re descended from
Cain. Evil is nothing new,
so what does it matter now
if we shell the infirmary,
and the well where the fearful
and rash alike must
come for water?”

God thinks Mary into being.
Suspended at the apogee
of the golden dome,
she curls in a brown pod,
and inside her mind
of Christ, cloaked in blood,
lodges and begins to grow.


The argument of the second stanza denies God’s paternity and thus does not see evil in the way God does, as only man’s invention. It denies the relevance of any account of evil’s origin and instead moves to an inventive relativity. We can shell the infirmary, destroy the house of healing we established since evil is old. We can destroy the well we dug, and thus not only sidestep the problem of evil’s origin (taking “well” as a source of water/life/baptism), but eliminate our origin completely. Medicine and water imply preservation, but there is also alpha/omega reference because of “well;” the world has been flooded before. A Sacrament of Healing – i.e. Last Rites – might be hiding within “infirmary.” The whole second stanza is a rash argument, used to create fear.

But “fearful” and “rash” almost describe God’s thought, which surrounds that stanza. “Is thinking” is the progressive form of the verb; “thinks” is the simple. The emphatic seems to be missing. “Is thinking” is part of a lament: from above, yet within the church, we have two invocations of “made.” We are God’s joy; we were made to be blessed. But “making” contrasts with God’s own discovery. He sees our actions, knows our hearts and arguments. God as philosopher is nervous; the world has been flooded before.

Hence, the third stanza. A perfect, sinless (human) being is conceived. If man wishes to use rashness to place fear in the hearts of others, God uses His own “fear” to act immediately. Mary is at the height of church, like a seed. Now since this is a mosaic, she is technically not the height of the church: one can imagine the cross that adorns all Orthodox churches from the outside growing from the seed within. But I like to think that while the cross grows upward as a symbol, there is a plant growing downward, from heaven toward us. The “mind of Christ, cloaked in blood” is affirmation that the church is not a building, and that the instruments of God’s grace are all around and not making stupid arguments to excuse slaughter.


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