Featured image: “The Annunciation Triptych” (c. 1427-1432 – also known as the Merode Altarpiece) from workshop of Robert Campin, operating in Tournai, Netherlands from 1375-1444). The lushly rendered central panel of this famous triptych is the artist’s contemplation of the scene (Luke 1:26-38) that we considered last Sunday.
The “wing” panels depict (to the left) those who commissioned the triptych to be painted, and (to the right) St. Joseph, the carpenter and husband of Mary, hard at work making … mousetraps (!). It is almost certain that the three panels were painted by three different artists – the central one by the Master himself, Robert Campin; the wing-panels by two of his most accomplished Apprentices.
What is striking in the left panel (though it is not at all unusual in medieval and renaissance renderings of Gospel scenes) is how the artist “understands” that the couple who commissioned the triptych belong in the Gospel scene. What are we to make of this strange warping of Space-Time?
The middle and left panels “explain” what Christian contemplation effects. It is a grace of “real presence” given by the Holy Spirit. Whereas “meditation” is reverent thinking about, for example, a biblical scene, “contemplation” is being given the gift of becoming fully present to it, or involved in it. And so there is the kneeling couple in the 15th century having an experience of “real presence” to the Angel and Mary who are having an experience of “real presence” to each other, dressed as 15th century persons, in the couple’s 15th century living room!
Consider Genesis 28:
16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he said, “Truly, the Lord is in this place and I did not know it!” 17 He was afraid and said: “How awesome this place is! This is nothing else but the house of God, the gateway to heaven!”
The 15th century couple’s contemplation of Mary (see how they kneel at the door) teaches them that a child, any child, is known by God, and desired by God to exist, before even the mom herself knows it – “when I was being made in secret”, as Psalm 139 famously acknowledges:
13 You formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, because I am wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works!
My very self you know.
15 My bones are not hidden from you,
When I was being made in secret,
fashioned in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw me unformed;
Their contemplation of Mary on her “Annunciation” day, further teaches them that when a child is “received” from God (as Mary here is in the act of receiving her own son, Jesus), God the Giver is received also. You see? The “way” that a couple receives a child – their child especially – is the same way that the couple will receive God. And what is this way for Mary? It is the way of reverence and surprise, of faith and mystery, of wonder and of some measure of fear (!). It also includes an unqualified “Yes” to the gift … and the Giver – “Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)
An Advent Habit to Cultivate in Week Two of Advent: It is one thing to live in proximity to the people closest to you; it is quite another contemplatively to receive them. If we are merely in proximity to the people closest to us, not actually receiving them each day, then we will do the same with God – merely in proximity to God at prayer or church or in the midst of daily life, but not receiving Him. Each day this week pick one person who is close to you and practice receiving that person – “a long loving look” at the reality and depth of that person. Do this with a different person each day this week.
 The Benezit Dictionary of Artists, which is part of Oxford Art Online – Article URL: http://www.oxfordartonline.com:80/subscriber/article/benezit/B00031127 – notes that details about Robert Campin’s birth and life and death remain obscure. But about his style they remark: “In all these works the drawing is sharp, the contours are clear, the colours are bright and the light cheerful. The artist who painted them achieves effects of pathos, and, in his portraits, a truthfulness to everyday life and the character of his sitters. In a Socratic movement of the spirit, his painting descends from heaven and concerns itself with human life; which describes quite well the movement from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.”
 http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/470304. Added to The Cloisters collection in 1956.
 The Oxford English Dictionary defines “triptych,” in its original meaning as: “A set of three writing-tablets hinged or tied together.” The key is that the three panels are not randomly linked. Rather, each of the three interprets the meaning of the other two. The triptych, then, expresses an act of religious insight – a grasping by the artist (s) of an essential relationship existing among the three scenes on the three panels. In short, a triptych proves that prayer has happened and that it has effected an understanding in the one praying – the artist (s).
 The work of “mousetraps” that the artist associates as the work of St. Joseph is actually connected to a famous image used first by St. Augustine (354-430 CE) in his Sermon 261 preached on the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus. He used the daring image of Jesus Christ as the “mousetrap” (his human nature as “bait” hiding the divine nature) that caught Satan – “snap!” – when “like a roaring lion” he came to devour Jesus on the Cross. Satan, not seeing Jesus’ divine nature, ended up “biting off far more than he could chew”! There is something consoling, I think, in the way that Augustine appears to frame Satan for us: as a kind of pest, an active nuisance … but no more than that when seen in terms of our identity as “belonging to Christ.”
 Concerning the meaning of the word “contemplation”, William A. Shannon writes in Michael Downey, The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), 209: “At times meditation has been used as a synonym for contemplation. This is an unfortunate usage, because meditation is generally understood to involve discursive reasoning, something foreign to true contemplation. Reasoning tends to separate, for it involves a subject thinking and an object thought about. While contemplation has to do with the presence of God, it should not be thought of as making “acts of the presence of God.” It is rather a way of making oneself aware of the presence of God who is always there. Awareness, which is central to contemplation, is a very different experience from thinking: it tends always to be unitive. A true sense of awareness reduces the distance between me and that of which I am aware; a very deep sense of awareness closes the gap between us. It brings us together. It unites.”
 New American Bible, Revised Edition (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Ge 28:16–17.
 New American Bible, Revised Edition (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Ps 139:13–16.
 This is a metaphorical way of speaking of the “hidden place,” that is, the mother’s womb.
 See the Note #6 above, especially at the end, concerning “a true sense of awareness.”