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Christ’s Simultaneous Absence & Presence


By Henri J.M. Nouwen | January-February 1987
The Rev. Henri J.M. Nouwen, a spiritual writer and Contributing Editor of the NOR, is currently a priest-in-residence at Daybreak, the l'Arche community in Toronto. His latest book is Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons.

Ed. Note: During the 1985-1986 academic year, Henri J.M. Nouwen was a priest-in-residence at the l’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France (a Catholic/ecumenical community serving disabled persons). This article is the fifth installment in a series of articles reflecting on that year, and this installment largely covers a side trip to West Germany. The series is adapted from his diary.

Sunday, February 9, 1986

In West Germany: The main altar of the Muenster in Freiburg is decorated with a splendid triptych painted by Hans Balding Grien. It shows the crowning of Mary in Heaven by God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

The painting expresses majesty: On Mary’s right sits God the Father, wearing a crown and red robe and holding a long staff in His left hand. On Mary’s left sits God the Son, who wears a crown and robe and holds the world in His right hand. Both hold with outstretched arms a golden crown above Mary’s head while the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove hovers over her. Many little cherubs surround them while Peter, Paul, and the other Apostles look at this heavenly scene with great devotion.

Hans Balding Grien painted this masterpiece between 1512 and 1516. Although I admire it as a great work of art, the scene does not attract me. Somehow I find it hard to see Mary as the center of attention in the Holy Trinity. The whole scene seems more an expression of royalty honoring womanhood, than of God’s response to Mary’s humble “Yes.” Whatever happened to the biblical portrayal of Mary as the humble, faithful, prayerful servant who did not understand what her Son meant but “stored up all… things in her heart” (Lk. 2:51)? Here Mary has become a victorious queen gloriously honored by the Triune God and the choirs of angels and Apostles.

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