One day last spring, my sixteen-year-old daughter, our artist-in-residence, came to me in a quandary. Grace was determined to begin a new painting, much larger than anything she had tried before, but she had no canvas. Under state-mandated pandemic guidelines, all the “non-essential” stores were closed, and we were sheltering in place. Did I have anything she could paint on?
Out in the garage, hidden behind some old shelves laden with gardening tools, I discovered a large scrap of plywood, nearly 4’ x 4’, under a thicket of spider webs. Pulling it out carefully to avoid splinters, I brushed it off and took a closer look. “Nope,” I thought, “much too rough to pass as a canvas.” Grace disagreed. “Papa, it’s perfect!” she exclaimed. What I saw was every crack, bow, and hazardous splinter. What she saw, her eyes alight, was the material upon which she would hazard the creation of something new, unexpected, beautiful.
The practice of incorporating “found materials” into works of art began to flourish in the early 1900s, when artists began to blend ordinary or randomly found objects—cigarette butts, soda cans, street-side detritus—into their creations. The idea of dignifying such “ordinary” and “ugly” materials in this way upended distinctions between what conventionally was considered art and that which was not art—and clearly not beautiful. From the artist’s perspective, found materials have revelatory potential in at least two ways: in the possibilities for “new creation” the artist sees in the object (thus my daughter’s delight with the plywood); and in the social history already hidden in the object (the scrap was leftover, forgotten, already “given” by the previous occupants of the house, waiting for me to discover it).
The season of Advent invites us into lingering contemplation of a God who ever seeks to create something new, unexpected, and beautiful from the most unpromising of human materials. A murderous king, a poor young Jewish woman, a carpenter known for dreaming; shepherds in the field, sign-readers from the East, and, above all, a vulnerable child. In our seasonal enchantment with the Nativity story, let us not forget the humble materials with which God chooses, again and again, to give birth to hope in human history.
In this sense, the faith of the artist mirrors the wager of Christian eschatological hope, both already given and not yet realized: that our lives, in the pattern of Jesus’s own freedom, are the canvas upon which God seeks to paint love, light, and new creation into a despairing world. A blighted urban landscape, a marginal Jewish village in Roman-occupied Palestine: within each of these discarded “remnants” there hides a history, a person, a people, linked indelibly to it in the stream of time. By reclaiming the mundane and broken as charged with possibility, the divine Artist turns the question back upon us: What wonders might yet be raised up from the ragged material of our own lives?
There is a decisive difference, of course, between the found objects repurposed by an artist and God’s artistry in human flesh. We are not inert objects or puppets dancing on a string. God asks our consent, our fiat, our yes, to participate in the drama of co-creation in history.
Here is the wonder, and the risk, of God’s incarnation in creatures who are free. The hope we seek in Advent is the graced capacity to say yes, it’s perfect. Perfect enough to begin the creation of something new, even when all that life seems to hand us is a battered old piece of plywood.
Author’s Note: this reflection was written for and recently published in the Catholic prayer journal, Give Us This Day, December 2020. Shared here with much gratitude to Liturgical Press, in this holy season of Advent.