The Holy Virgin (2002-2004)
by Sergei Chepik
copyright 2004

Christmas Eve, Isaiah 9:2-7

Historical Description:

In 2003, Sergei Chepik (b. 1953, Kiev) was commissioned by the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to paint four paintings for the nave of the cathedral, focusing on the life and ministry of Christ. The work was completed in 2005, dedicated on January 24.This painting of the Holy Virgin (or the Nativity) was the first completed and first in the series. Deeply religious, Chepik was known for his ability to recreate the tradition inherited by the great Christian painters with fresh power and to translate the ancient image and narrative into a universal timelessness that could draw in contemporary viewers anew. Not that he domesticated Christ in his art—rather it is with renewed power and yes, offense, that the image of Christ confronts the modern. In this way, Chepik hoped that the Gospel could be found through his work.

Devotional Reflection:

The hustle and bustle of the Christmas season—perhaps all our shopping is done, perhaps some have already begun opening presents (like at my house), wearing tonight our new sweaters and ties and jewelry. We have all gathered here now –maybe we are squeezed in here–to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus. To guide our celebration and our reflection not only do I suggest we listen to the prophet Isaiah read moments ago—“for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” but also that we look and see how a picture of the nativity can help us receive this gift of God.

There are many familiar images of the nativity—most are inviting, peaceful scenes. Though the child is in a feeding trough, he remarkably always looks comfortable and happy! And the glow of the faces are a mixture of sanctity and the expression of joy of a new family. But not so this painting by Sergei Chepik. [Perspective: Within the Image] Mary is dressed as a beggar woman, emaciated, and pale. The Christ child, stands not as an infant meek and mild but as a thin, sickly young boy. His arms are outstretched though hardly as an invitation for embrace. An angel strains at the bells. For what do they toll? Peace? War?

But tonight I want you to focus at the face of Mary. What do you see? … what is she looking at? Look at that expression—this is not the usual face of Mary at Christmas—where is the peace, the joy? She looks …. horrified, terrified, grief stricken. What is she looking at that would yield such an expression?

[PerspectiveIn Front of the Image] Perhaps, she is looking out at our world. How commercialism and materialism have run rampant and ruined this holy time of year. Perhaps she is looking in sorrow and disbelief as she sees the world use the birth of her son as an occasion for greed and selfishness. Perhaps she is looking out at the garish lights and superficial holiday jingles and stands here horrified at the lack of generosity, the lack of good will, and charity in our world.

But maybe she is more near-sighted than that—perhaps her gaze does not go past these walls but rests upon us … here gathered in this room. What does she see? How different are we from what we see in the world?Americans spend $450 billion every year at Christmas. I suspect that when we look at our credit card bills next month, we would see that we have helped America reach that number again this year. What if we would take the money that otherwise would have been spent on sweaters or slippers or a blue-ray dvd player and pool it together in order to help the suffering, the poor, the oppressed? Maybe Mary is seeing what we could be doing together and yet sees that we so often fail to do it.

Or maybe her sight is even sharper and her gaze pierces into my heart. And there her eyes settle on my own selfishness, my reluctance to give, my thoughtlessness, my neglect of my neighbor in need. As this peasant woman presents her son to the world, she looks into our hearts and she is grieved to see our impoverished giving. She is looking at who we are, what we have, and what we offer and she is shocked, she is saddened.

But what is she really looking at?[Perspective: Around the Image] 

Detail of The Passion (2002-2004), by Sergei Chepik, photo by Hugh Kelly, copyright 2005

This painting hangs in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. It is the first of four in a series of paintings hung in the nave on pillars that face each other. And if you were to stand before this painting and turn to match your line of sight with hers, you would see it. You would see what she is looking at—with eyes wide with terror and moist with sadness.

Across from her is Chepik’s enormous painting of Golgotha. She is staring at her son, stretched out on the cross. She is not looking at what the world or we give or don’t give at Christmas. She is looking at what she has given, what God has given, what her Son has given for the life of the world. Not our gifts, but this gift—this is Christmas. “For unto us a child is born, for unto us a son is given.”

However, perhaps we do have something to give. Though we don’t always see it, we, the church, are surprisingly like Mary. We have heard the promise and in hearing that word in faith a miracle has been conceived in us. The church indeed bears Christ as a mother would a child—a treasure in our midst. But also like Mary, the church does not clutch the Christ child, keeping the babe to herself alone, but she gives this child to the world. Giving this gift of Jesus to the world is not easy—we often suffer … it’s like dying really. Yet only in that gift do any of us have life.

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