Steve Taylor Arts
This painting was completed at the request of Associate Pastor Rev. John V. DoBranski and first installed with the assistance of Associate Pastor Rev. Michael S.Triplett on December 24, 2008, during the pastorate of Msgr. James O. McGovern.
* * *
In this nativity painting at the Church of the Resurrection, Mary is portrayed as 15 years of age; Joseph is 33; Levi, a shepherd boy, is 12; and Elias, an elder shepherd boy, is 18. Youthfulness is one of God’s eternal attributes, and it is also a gift to those who trust and receive God, those who love and serve Him. This grace is broadly encountered in The Way of the Lamb, a book on the theology of childhood by Fr. John Saward. The co-workers of God’s will are obedient through a spirit of youthfulness and fear of the Lord. They are ‘gutsy’ because of grace; selfless because of poverty; and humble because of love.
This writing presents collected nativity meditations and meanings, ancient and recent, embedded in this painting, and also ones which speak in sanctuary Christmas paintings by tradition and revelation. The inexhaustible wonders of the Incarnation – God come in the likeness of His creature and the teaching in the nativity of Jesus of Nazareth itself – are by faith, the center of the one elation that is true Christmas.
But how many are attentive, with hands, minds and hearts open, to receive the blessings and graces of the Divine Infant Jesus that come once a year on Christmas Eve? The gift of God’s love and beauty, freely given away and received, is especially for those in greatest need.
On this page:
The view into the nativity is from ‘the choir loft’; a view of hovering invisible angels who are singing this scene to the beholder.
The nativity is a vertical painting that communicates the continuum of the heavenly and the earthly in the new moment of Christmas, the historical beginning of holy time on earth. Heaven is come to earth. Now, in one night, they kiss.
“Recognize the Mediator between God and men, who from the beginning of His nativity allies human things with divine, the lowliest with the highest.”
— St. Bernard
Sermon 1 of The Circumcision
The plan for this painting was to combine a deep starry sky, the townscape of Bethlehem, and a view from inside the cave-stable, into one view. The cave-stable emerged with a ceiling higher than seems natural, but so that all these things could be glimpsed and pondered together. This “higher ceiling” is a metaphor for the elevated state that surrounds this high feast, a time of great inpouring grace, and which asks us in conjunction to expose ourselves more to its light.
Christ is born amidst a ruin built around a cave and used as a stable. A cave is one of the earliest forms of human shelter or refuge. Is the old stone dwelling fronting a cave, the house of David? – ruin of a thousand years before? – waiting for the sprout of Jesse? Jesus himself is the new refuge of humanity.
Bethlehem has re-opened Eden.
Let us go and see.
We have delight in a hidden place. (1 Chronicles 9:18)
In the cave we shall regain the goods of paradise.
There appeared the unwatered root whence flowered forgiveness.
There again was found the undug well that David once sought for refreshment.
— St. Romanos the Melodist
Hymn on the Nativity
“Bethlehem, the city of David, is situated on a narrow ridge, encompassed with valleys on every side. In the last corner there is a kind of natural grotto. Its outer part is said to be the place of our Lord’s nativity. The inner is called the manger of the Lord.”
— St. Bede
“The cave mentioned by St. Bede was the kind of fissure in the rock that farmers in many cultures have used as shelter for their animals.”
— Fr John Saward
Cradle of Redeeming Love
“The Messiah was born here for you. He came to bring Light to the land of His fathers: the Son of a Virgin Mother, of the line of David, in the ruins of the house of David.”
— Maria Valtorta
The cave ceiling is cut off at the top border of this painting where there is a small narrow section that opens to sky. Through this metaphorical opening, the invisible, the heavenly, the eternal, pours into the world from ‘above’ on Christmas Eve. This coming light of high midnight, seen as a gleam from directly over head, touches the very top of the sky in this painting and bathes all the land below in clear light. All is bright.
“The first [coming of our Lord] was at midnight, according to the words of the Gospel: At midnight there was a cry made, Lo the Bridegroom cometh!”
— Peter of Blois
Third Sermon de Adventu
Midnight, Christians, it is the solemn hour,
When God-man descended to us
To erase the stain of original sin
And to end the wrath of His Father
The entire world thrills with hope
On this night that gives it a Savior.
People kneel down, wait for your deliverance.
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!
— Placide Cappeau
Minuit, chrétiens (Midnight, Christians, verse one, original French lyric of the carol O Holy Night)
“While gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed.”
— Book of Wisdom 18:14–15
“Silence is the space of this child. Silence, is the sphere where God is born. It is only when we ourselves enter the sphere of silence that we reach the point where God is born.”
— Pope Benedict XVI
The Blessing of Christmas
Christmas Eve is a moment, ever beckoning: silent, holy, perfect. The Child ever attracts us because he does not condemn, but comforts us with his abiding silent and only loving, blessing presence. The Divine Infant is the sacred emperor of silence, where every noise of satan within is shown false.
Though the manger is depicted as stone, it’s rendered neutrally to be read alternately as wooden, acknowledging the popular tradition of a wooden nativity manger. Stone mangers were a common element in caves used for sheltering animals. Imagined as stone, the manger of the infant Christ is also an altar.
“To overcome the world we must become children. To become children we must fold our consciousness upon the Divine Infant who is the center of our being, who is our being itself, and all that we are must be absorbed in Him. Whatever remains of self must be the cradle in which He lies.”
— Fr John Saward
Redeemer in the Womb
“Jesus is born into the darkness and poverty of the world. For any soul, at any moment, He can be born into the darkness and poverty of that person. He comes not as a tyrant king, but in the humblest guise, the purest kindness, in the freshness of a new baby. In Christ the infant, God proves that He wants to be loved, not feared.”
“The birth in Bethlehem, so human and humble, is like a door, into the infinite abyss of God.”
“The sacred heart of the Babe of Bethlehem has come to be the vast central fire of the frozen world. In December, in the cold season [note the donkey’s hoary breath in the painting detail], when man most feels his mortal frailty, the eternal Son comes to invigorate us with the new youth of adoption by the Father, and to warm us with the blaze of the Holy Spirit.” [This divine gleam is presented as light radiating from His manger.]
“In her flesh and by her faith, with all the intelligence of her mind and all the love in her heart, Mary has brought the Redeemer into the world. But the Virgin also kneels in adoration, for the child of hers is also her God.”
— Fr John Saward
Cradle of Redeeming Love
“Against the vanity of the sciences you will find an infant without speech or chatter; against the vanity of riches you will find Him wrapped in swaddling clothes, not with cloth, not with skins, but only with rags, not with one but with several, because of their poverty; against the vanity of dignities and honors, you will find Him placed in a manger, at the feet of animals.”
— St. Bonaventure
If one draws close enough to this painting, one sees that all eyes are upon the Christ. The Baby Jesus’ eyes are fixed solely on the person who gazes upon Him. As a new baby, He is shown awake, conscious, in the fullness of a human person. Before the time of Christ, all human beings were either slaves or lords. But with His coming, there is neither anymore; young, old, Greek, Jew ... Christ knows only souls: He signals and brings the revolution of the human person.
“How consistent it is with the incredible tenderness of God that His Christ, the Immortal Child, should be conceived by the power of the Spirit in the body of a child, that a child should bear a child, to redeem the world.”
— Caryll Houselander
The Reed of God
They are both of the appearance of religious, a vocation of married virginity that they uniquely shared on earth.
Mary is dressed in dark sapphire, darker than the night sky, a sign of her sorrow in the vocation as Mother of the Divine Lamb. Her white sheep-wool blanket, symbol of comfort and joy, with which Joseph kept her warm during the cold sojourn from Nazareth, is here already being shed, as her hands are shown selflessly presenting Christ to the shepherds, to say, with obedience: Jesus belongs to His people, to the Father’s work.
Joseph is dressed in dark brown, the color of monastic habit; he is the most chaste spouse, as deeply aware of the knowledge of God and Scripture as any man could be and remain worthy of the Most Holy Virgin.
Both have shed their warm garments for the benefit of the child. Her light blue mantle, symbol of motherly nurture, has been placed on the coarse straw of the manger to soften the bed for Jesus. Joseph’s mantle covers the hole in the wall that used to be the entrance to the fallen-down-house-become-stable. His mantle mutes the winter draft, and is a symbol of the father’s duty to protect a family household from evil. Both sacrifice their comfort for their son and their King.
There is no Christmas without the labor, sacrifice, inconvenience, and discomfort submitted to by the Holy Parents, the gift of Mary and Joseph, to the world.
For all His people, for all gentiles and unbelievers, the reality and dominion of God is waiting for the lifting of the lightest veil – human choice. Belief in God is that decisive, simple, unambiguous ‘yes’, predisposed to all. Each person is invited at Christmas into the holy birthing room, into God’s reality, a world that is always beginning and always waiting patiently. The lifting of the veil, even ‘a little to one side’ – the simplest forward-risking yes, is all that separates the lost one from being welcomed home into the loving favor of the Almighty and the renewal of all things in this life.
This painting in part narrates portions of “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” a personal revelation given to Maria Valtorta (June 7, 1943; direct quotes are italicized) which discloses 12 shepherds in the group visiting the stable, representing a gamut of ages, young to old.
Some of the shepherds notice a brightening of the night sky, as if the moon were somehow more luminous than normal. The older shepherds remark upon the strange brightness. The very youngest of the shepherds, a boy about 12 years old, is in tears. But the boy’s fear quickly passes and he wanders out away from the shelter, attracted to this unusual light. He is joined by the other shepherds who see his transfixion, especially after mocking him for being so frightened at first. The young one points to the source he discerns:
“There, there” he whispers smiling. “Above the tree, look at the light that is coming. It seems to be coming on the ray of the moon. There it is, it is coming near. How beautiful it is!”
A second, older shepherd boy discerns that it is a body. The brightness grows until it is clear that it is proceeding toward them. The others all see it. As it is almost upon them, the boy shouts:
“It is…it is an angel…Here he is, he is coming down, he is coming near….
Down! On your knees before the angel of God.”
...The shepherds fall down face to the ground and the older they are, the more they appear to be crushed by the refulgent apparition. The young ones are on their knees, looking at the angel who is coming nearer and nearer…
The Angel of the Lord brings them the Good News, telling them to go and find the Savior. They prepare to depart immediately. Realizing that He is sheltered in poor circumstance, the shepherds take with them flasks of sheep’s milk, cheeses, tanned hides and lambs.
When they arrive they find a cave which is fronted by a dilapidated structure whose entrance has been reduced to a hole. Hanging over the hole is a light brown mantle. The group is seized with hesitation, pondering whether they should invite themselves into the chamber, to burst upon the privacy of the strangers. A trepidatious elder says “You, Levi, who saw the angel first, obviously because you are better than we are, look in.”
“The boy hesitates, but then he makes up his mind. He goes near the hole, pulls the mantle a little to one side, looks…
…and remains enraptured.”
He is greeted by Joseph, who welcomes them, aware that they are humble shepherds who have brought food and some wool.
“We have come to worship the Savior.”
A Jewish shepherd boy of 12 is the first of all peoples to enter, first to greet the newborn Jesus. He is followed by 10 older companions, and lastly by the fellow, elder shepherd boy who could tell the light coming from the night sky was a body.
From the Book of Genesis, one remembers Joseph, the ruddy shepherd boy, youngest of Jacob’s 12 children, who would be taken away to Egypt, to save many, from all over, later in the ripeness of manhood. The boy’s name is Levi, same as the Jewish priest class. Levi greets the Christ first, of all Israel’s people. Christ has come – first – to save his own people.
This nativity painting is tall and narrow (5′ × 10′). The picture would not comfortably accommodate 12 shepherds, so the merciful total of two was determined: the two young shepherds whose ages bracket the teen years, and who, by innocence and grace, recognized and greeted first the angel that came upon them.
The two young shepherds are the first and the last of the 12 shepherds to enter the cave and greet the Savior that night, in accord with Maria’s revelation. “The first and last” signify inclusively all 12 shepherds; and thereby, the 12 tribes, all the people of Israel.
The two also signify ‘the many’, that is to say, the rest of humanity on earth – history’s every poor, humble, adorer of God who will kneel before the manger down the centuries.
The name given of the second young shepherd is “Elias”. Elias is recognized as the Latin transliteration of the Greek name derived from the Hebrew Elijah. A preponderance of Christian patrimony is prophetically communicated by the three senses of this one name – the very beginnings of the Universal Church.
In name, the shepherds Levi and Elias (Elijah) are symbolic of priest and prophet. The nativity is given in the house of David the King. The Christ will be all three.
In a 1415 Corpus Christi celebration, the Ordo paginarum notes that Jesus was lying between an ox and an ass.
There is no mention in the synoptic Gospels of animals being present in the nativity stable. Yet, it is entirely conceivable for such a presence in view of the place – an old stable – and the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib.” It also fulfills what was said by Habakkuk the prophet: “Between two animals you are made manifest.”
“The Fathers of the Church saw in these words a prophecy that pointed ahead to the new people of God, the Church consisting of both Jews and Gentiles. Before God, all men, Jews and Gentiles, were like the ox and ass, without reason or knowledge. But the Child in the crib has opened their eyes so that they now recognize the voice of their Master, the voice of their Lord.”
— Pope Benedict XVI
The Blessing of Christmas
— F.R. Webber
This nativity painting had to include a significant portion of night sky, especially a sense of its grandeur, the grandeur of the night heavens, which is diminished, often greatly in our time, by omnipresent night lighting of cities and streets. The heavens, the night sky in its voluminous starlight, are wed to earth on this night, though the modern age has often forgotten this, obscuring the primordial light of stars with its own cloud of artificial light, the smog of human self-importance. How wondrous must the stars in the sky have been that night 2000 years ago!
“Are we not interested in the cosmos anymore? Is it not important precisely today to pray with the whole of creation?”
— Pope Benedict XVI
Spirit of the Liturgy
In Hebrew, the name of the city of David means “house of bread”. Jesus comes as the sacrificial offering for the redemption of the world, who will be memorialized in the blessed sacrament in the house of God as the Living Bread of Heaven.
This nativity might seem untraditional to some, or to those used only to a wooden stable nativity, but it is not without precedent. There is a cave nativity painting installed as a mural in The Chapel of the Shepherds in Beit Sahour.
At the far periphery of town, the eastern ridge’s end, which falls away all around into steep valley, the very last establishment found is a hotel, the last hope of Joseph and Mary after surveying the entirety of Bethlehem.
The Hotel has a long yard divided in three sections. The first is an enclosure of rustic porches for animals, the second holds two tents in a solid enclosure, and the third has a single tent with a visible doorway in the surrounding stone yard. The third signifies those who are not yet able to come and accept the Christ of God, but who will come in time.
The cave is placed just outside the city limits of Bethlehem – a symbol in concord with the crucifixion – that the Christ has come to us outside the city. He will also die outside the city. Christ is in total solidarity with the poor banished children of Eve, who until now have remained outside the walls of Heaven.
The image of Bethlehem, true to the curvature of it’s topographical setting, effects a sense of separating distance and merges with the image of all earth that has waited for the intervention of the Lord.
This painting as a whole is built on the premise that the present Church of the nativity in the Holy Land is built over the very caves where the local memory of antiquity traditionally places the birth of the Savior.
The cave-ruin contains a relic pole, a beam in the house it once supported. The tree trunk pole in David’s house is the presence of the cross. Jesus’ mission is known and declared from the very beginning, and it tempers great tidings of joy with the humbling reality of His sacrifice.
The pole shows two branches. Upon one branch are set two turtledoves, signifying that Jesus will be given to the House of Israel in His Presentation, in solidarity, but also in meekness, humility and obedience, as God in true communion with his people. This branch is pointing south where the Holy Family will soon flee to escape the madness of Herod’s massacre of the Bethlehem innocents, what Caryll Houselander would call “The Passion of the Infant Christ”.
The other branch, a more mature cut-off nub, points in the opposite direction – to Jerusalem, where Jesus will die on the cross at the age of 33.
Christmas and Christianity are not about sentimentalities. Christian life is challenging, sacrificial and accepts hardship as the pathway to peace.
The little clay olive oil lamp, with halo, signifies the presence of the Holy Ghost, third person of the Trinity. There are three persons in any holy marriage. God is the third person.
The small storage trunk behind Mary is a symbol of the Holy Family’s willed life of poverty.
Four trees are shown in the middle ground: two olive trees and two cedar trees. The olive trees are symbols of the many “first”. The cedars are symbols of the many “last”. “First” and “last” are, respectively, those who already know God and those who do not yet know Him. All shall become the children of God who believe in and accept the Christ, the Son, the perfect child of the nativity, the Incarnation.
There is a dividing landform between the two tree types: a low cliff, expressing that sinners shall come up from the valley of sin, the place of misery, grief and unfreedom, to overcome the devil, the world and the flesh. The color of dark cedar green is a symbol of penitential or holy sadness, the kind of weeping Jesus instructed women on the Via Dolorosa to make, not for him, but for themselves and their children. Those who sew in tears repentantly will reap rejoicing.
The “first” shall humble themselves and come down from self-inflation, pride or vanity, attached to the privilege of friendship with God, accepting that there be no condescension among any of the people of Christ’s flock.
The “last” shall come up from the grave of sin, the “dead” that shall come to life, through the power of the acts of the Savior.
With the arrival of the Savior, all sinners will ascend to the higher ground of freedom from addictions and enslaving idolatries, of dignity and sanctity, discovered in a human life of health and purpose, in mind body and soul. In, by and through the grace of God.
The nativity is an inexhaustible icon of Christian ideal, as contemplation, as teaching. The arrival of the Christ on earth is chosen to be greeted first by shepherds: simple folk, ever close to God, because they are close to nature, to beauty and to poverty. When they find the place described by the Angel, they have only to lift a veil – Joseph’s own mantle serving as makeshift door curtain – to enter the holy birthing room.
There, the shepherds fall on their knees, with mercy’s tears, adoring God, and worshipping Him. They love their neighbor as well, anticipating the needs of the poor visiting family, setting before them food, drink, and means of warmth.
The viewer hovers with unseen angels from within the cave-ruin of David’s house glimpsing the church of charity, our home on earth of loving God and serving neighbor, peering beyond into a darkness literally star-filled with hope, over a city asleep with gaping mouths (whole households), hungry unawares for true food – salvation.
Christ, whose purity proves itself in an earthly life perfect in works, innocence and humility, greets all humanity from a feeding trough for animals, poised to transfigure us from enslaved flesh (pagans who know not what they do) to freedom’s dignified soul – in spiritual living, radiating the imponderable original light and purity of God as infant.
The nativity is a vertical landscape of suspended wonder, heaven and earth touched together in one still-echoing moment of gleaming deepest night, the night of light, the Christ light overcoming darkness forever.
Collected and compiled by JST
August 2006 – January 2012