In the Nativity, at the Heart of the Holy Family, There Is the Holy Eucharist

Even in the stable, in the wood of the manger, there is the Bread of Life, the Word made flesh

Robert Campin, “The Nativity,” ca. 1420
Robert Campin, “The Nativity,” ca. 1420 (photo: Public Domain)

If the concept of kenosis — a self-emptying of one’s own will in favor of complete conformity to the will of God — is best applied to Jesus’ Passion, another term can be applied to the Nativity: exinanitio, God becoming “small” or “humbling” himself in the form of man. This idea is exemplified in Philippians 2:6-8:

Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness, and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.

Of course, the Christ Child is the central figure of the Christmas season. In the Nativity, the Incarnate Word, born of the Father before all ages, appears in human flesh. Not the flesh of an omnipotent ruler or impervious superman, but a tiny infant, as needy and helpless as all babies are. Perhaps, in this enfeeblement, the heightened status the Church places on Mary and Joseph is best understood: the Father entrusts the Son in human form to be nurtured by human parents, entrusting total care to this devout Jewish couple, this Holy Family.

At the same time, in the joyful moment of new life embraced into a loving family, exinanitio and kenosis meet, in the locus of the Son’s birth. Even in the stable, there is the shadow of the Cross. This was not lost on Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen in his work, Life of Christ: “It was not so much that His birth cast a shadow on His life, and thus led to His death; it was rather that the Cross was there from the beginning, and it cast its shadow backward to His birth.”

It was also not lost on the Carthusians, reflected in the order’s motto, Stat crux dum volvitur orbis: “The Cross is steady while the world turns.”

What does this all mean?

The Incarnation, the exinanitio of the Son, is more than a beautiful moment of a babe’s birth. It is more than a sentimental story. Nor is it a mere coincidence that Bethlehem becomes the Savior’s birthplace. Bethlehem — in Hebrew, “house of bread.” Even in the stable, in the wood of the manger, there is the Bread of Life, the Word made flesh, the hostia — the spiritual victim that would be offered to the Father on the Cross, and the oblation offered to the Father at the Mass. There, even in the Nativity, is the Eucharist.

“The manger becomes a reference to the table of God, to which we are invited so as to receive the bread of God,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Jesus of Nazareth—The Infancy Narratives. “From the poverty of Jesus’ birth emerges the miracle in which man’s redemption is mysteriously accomplished.”

Catholic Artistic Tradition

Such theological understanding was infused in Catholic art of the Early Netherlandish period, such as Robert Campin’s Nativity (see image above).

Note how the crumbling stable shows the roof’s wheat stalks foundation. According to art history expert Erwin Panofsky, a crumbling stable was common in Early Netherlandish work in order to depict the Old Covenant crumbling in the presence of the New Covenant — the Son. We see this juxtaposition in the framing of the Child and the bright colors and lighting of those bearing witness to his presence. Moreover, though, the visibility of the wheat stalks alludes to the Eucharist, through which Christ ratified the New Covenant.

From there we focus on Campin’s depiction of the Christ Child. One immediately is struck by the Child appearing without the customary swaddling clothes a Nativity scene would normally show. However, one can glean Eucharistic meaning from this decision: we see Christ only in the flesh, indeed, as “chasuble of the flesh,” which is how Bishop Guillaume Durand (1230-1296) described the physicality of the Incarnation. Thus, in Campin’s Nativity, the corpus Christi is already shown to be giving his life to the world. Furthermore, the presence of the cloaked angels reinforces this notion, garbed in liturgical vestments, poised in the same way as St. John Chrysostom taught, that angels fill the sanctuaries of all churches, honoring Christ in the Eucharist.

Studying the painting even closer, we come across the lettering on three banderoles: Virgo peperit filium (“a virgin will give birth to a son”), Credam quem probavero (“I will believe when I have seen”), and Tange puerum et senaberis (“Touch the Child and you will be healed). Here, Campin subtly connects this scene at the beginning of his birth with the Resurrection — namely, the doubting of St. Thomas and his coming to believe in the Resurrection.

Jesuit Father Maurice McNamee instructs us on the use of color in the painting, by pointing out that the three angels are not clothed in customary white but rather blue, red and green. Father McNamee noted blue and green symbolized hope and red as charity. The Jesuit art historian writes in his book Vested Angels, “The very appearance of the Infant Christ already beginning the emptying of Himself that would end on the Cross is the basis of all Christian hope, and the same Christ Child who would ultimately give His life on the Cross for the salvation of the human race is the supreme example of love.”

Finally, one cannot help but notice the rising sun in the background, its rays piercing through the mountain, not unlike a monstrance’s rays surrounding the encased Eucharistic Host. Here, Robert Campin juxtaposes the rising dawn with the birth of the Son, the Light of the World, the Light from Light, and as St. John describes in his Prologue, “a light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower” (John 1:5).

Sacred art is more than beautiful pictures. It is separate from other art forms. Like Campin’s Nativity, sacred art turns its viewers' gaze away from themselves, and instead toward the profound mysteries of faith.

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