For a Catholic, our faith is not about a book, but about the Word, and at Christmas we celebrate the moment when the “Word became flesh” (John 1:14).
The most striking aspect of the story of God becoming man is that, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “it really happened.”
St. Augustine enjoins us not to gloss over the mystery of the Incarnation. “Wake up, O man,” he proclaims, “it was for you that God was made man! For you, I say, was God made man.”
As we celebrate Christmas, let’s try to “wake up” and meditate on this great mystery, using as our guide some great masterpieces of art currently housed in the National Gallery in London.
“Answer quickly, O Virgin”
The decisive chapter of our story happened in a very insignificant town, in the silence of a house where a young girl received an announcement. The young Mary, in her total purity and beauty, opened her heart to God’s message.
Filippo Lippi painted “The Annunciation” (1449-1459) in a very particular setting: a garden. It is not difficult to think of another garden, where Eve heard another voice —the serpent’s— and introduced sin into our world.
Mary, the new Eve, in a new garden that offers a new paradise, was meditating on a promise when the angel came. For many, the text in Mary’s hands is a copy of the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, where she was reading that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”
God, all powerful, in a mysterious decision of his love, chooses to depend on the answer of a young lady. The eternal plan of salvation expects her answer.
St. Bernard described like no one else what happened in those seconds between the angel’s annunciation and Mary’s “yes”: “Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word.”
The crib and the Cross
A painting by Giovanni Bellini helps us to delve deeper into the mystery of Christ’s Nativity.
Aside from the simple, rural background in “Madonna of the Meadow” (1505), there is something powerful and subtle. This apparently joyful depiction of Mary and Jesus has a moving resemblance with another work Bellini painted in the same year—a strikingly similar Pieta.
Mary is contemplating her tender Son, knowing that he is the suffering servant announced by Isaiah, knowing that he will die for us.
As St. Gregory of Nyssa writes: “If one inquires into the mystery, he will say rather, not that death happened to him as a consequence of birth, but birth itself was assumed on the account of death.”
Geertgen tor sin Jans painted in the Netherlands a small devotional work—“The Nativity at Night” (1490)—that shows another aspect of the mystery of the Nativity.
The dark night would be just darkness, had the Son not come for us. The son is born and gives light, he “is the true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” (Jn 1:9).
The light of this baby causes a great impression in those present in the manger. Even the angels are in awe (as we can see in the funny expression of the little angel). Joseph, the faithful Joseph, shows his reverence for the mystery that he has to protect, standing there at one side.
Mary is all love, marveling at what is happening, contemplating the prophecies, believing what seems impossible: her little baby is the God almighty.
Originally an altarpiece for a Marian chapel, Jan Gossaert’s “Adoration” (1510-1515) invites us to see and contemplate the Son of God, adored by the nine choirs of angels. His glory is in contrast with the human glory of the kings: Naked, he is the center of the painting.
He is held by Mary, whose dignity is remarkable. She brings us Jesus, who appears as our priest. In what perhaps is the most moving message of this masterpiece, Jesus receives one of the gifts of a magi, and seems to be simply playing with the gold.
But if we look carefully, we will notice that the gold coins come in a vessel that is a ciborium, and the coins resemble hosts, and Jesus is actually holding a host and offering Communion to a kneeling king, who has removed his hat and humbly adores the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Not in vain, then, Bethlehem means “house of bread.”
The final theme is the presence of ruins. The coming of Christ and its acceptance by the magi, who represent the gentiles, indicates the definitive end of the old times—the ruins—and the beginning of the new.
With Christ there is hope for change, for renewal. Our own lives, with their ruins and old things that need change, can find joy at Christmas in Jesus, who makes “all things new” (Revelation 21:5).
Father Daniel Cardó is a priest of the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, and pastor of Holy Name Parish in Sheridan, Colorado.