In his Introduction the author mentions two saints, separated by centuries and nationality, who believed that "the most distinguishing belief of the Catholic Church was not the resurrection but the incarnation - that the Son of the almighty God had become fully human". The two saints were St Alphonsus Liguori, founder of the Redemptorists, who composed Stations of the Infant Jesus, and our most recent English saint, John Henry Newman. [ McBride's new book completes a recent trilogy of Stations books by Redemptorist Publications: McBride himself wrote Stations of the Cross: Then and Now, and Richard Q Greatrex Stations of the Resurrection.]
The format of the book is simple. Fourteen episodes are chosen from the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, except for the very first, which is taken from John, and which stresses the awesome reality of God becoming truly human. Each episode has the same shape: after the opening response there is a scripture reading, followed by the author's personal reflection, then a prayer and a closing response. Fourteen carefully chosen works of art match each station as appropriate.
The stations follow the sequence in the Gospels, beginning with John the Evangelist's proclamation of the Word becoming flesh and blood, pitching his tent with us all: God incarnate! The art work chosen for this is a shot of our earth taken from space, to get across the sense of the massive move our God chose and dared to make in becoming a vulnerable human being, a baby.
The rest of the stations unfold the story as we find it in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke. But in such a way that familiarity does not breed contempt. There is no Jesus without his predecessor prophet-cousin John the Baptist, so we go first to the annunciation to Zechariah before that to Mary. Then Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, both unexpectedly expectant mothers. Mary's song of praise, the Magnificat, has its own section. The birth of John the Baptist is next, before we meet Joseph the dreamer, and arrive at the birth of Jesus himself. Who would have thought that disreputable shepherds would be the first adorers, before the respectable eastern magi? The author makes the scenes come alive vividly.
The last four scenes bring the pain and suffering not just of Jesus, Mary and Joseph into sharp focus, but that of our present century's folk who live on the edge. Innocents being massacred, and flights into Egypt: these are stories happening before our eyes now. The words of Simeon as Jesus is presented as a poor child with two pigeons break the hearts of mothers and father then and now. And finally Jesus breaks their hearts by telling Mary and Joseph he was not theirs, but belonged ultimately to his Father. So the wheel comes full circle, with the complete implications of God becoming human so that we humans might become God.
The art works for all the stations are meant to take the reader into the lived experience, to jump into the frame, as it were, to give a focus and a "feel" to the prayerful pondering of each particular moment of the story of the infancy of Jesus. There is a delightful variety, from tender to shocking, as the author wants the reader not just to touch the story of the infant Jesus, but also to grasp the reality of what the incarnation means right here, now, today. There is particular poignancy in the choice of paintings for the massacre of the innocents and the flight into Egypt.
All in all, McBride, with his usual aplomb, has created a thoughtful book which would make a good present for someone, not just for Christmas, but for any time during the year. And it can be used for personal prayer and devotion, or in a community context.
Stations of the Infancy by Denis McBride CSsR
Redemptorist Publications, pbk, 87 pages, 2019, £12.95
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