The Third Joyful Mystery: The Birth of Jesus Christ

ROSARY & ART: Why did God become man? Because man needed him and God loved him.

Sandro Botticelli, “Mystic Nativity,” 1500
Sandro Botticelli, “Mystic Nativity,” 1500 (photo: Public Domain)

(Luke 2:1-20; Matthew 2:1-12; John 1)

Every mother looks forward to her baby’s birth. The novena of pregnancy — nine months — is (like novenas are supposed to be) a preparatory time of “getting to know you, getting to know all about you.” And, in normal life, that expectation builds up until the moment.

The moment when human history split in two: time would be “before Christ” and “Anno Domini,” the year of the Lord.

Why did God become man? Because man needed him and God loved him.

God made us in his image and likeness. By sin, man freely chose to deface that image. He freely chose to cut himself off from God, to declare a fake “autonomy” over and against God. 

But if God is the source of our being, to choose to cut oneself off from God can have but one outcome: non-being. That’s why, when God warns Adam and Eve that their sin would result in death, it’s not an idle or arbitrary threat. In some sense, it’s not even a “punishment.” It’s a simple fact. If the light cuts its connection to the powerplant “a streetlamp dies,” not because the powerplant is “punishing” it but because it lacks power on its own to live. 

Things fall apart. Man hides from God. When found, the man blames the woman and the woman the serpent. Nature, over which the human was to have dominion, rebels. Work is unproductive, bread being gathered by the sweat of one’s brow.

But, from the first pages of the Bible, God makes clear sin and death would not have the last word. Already he promises “a woman and her offspring” (Genesis 3:15) that would crush the devil’s head. 

God made good on that promise on Christmas. (He actually did so at the Annunciation.)

“Again and again you offered a covenant to man, and taught him to hope for salvation.” The Old Testament is full of clues. The Messiah would be from David’s line, which he would continue forever (2 Samuel 7:13-16). A virgin would be with child (Isaiah 7:14). He would come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).

God keeps his Word. He even sends that Word (John 1:1-18).

Mary’s humility continues with her Son. Mary did all she could to assist Elizabeth, but the least human conditions were not afforded to her and her baby. “There was no room in the inn.” The God who made the universe entered that world in an animal’s feeding trough in a shed for housing those animals.

And then amazing things start happening.

The innkeeper may have shut the door, but shepherds show up. They are not particularly esteemed figures in ancient Israel: as nomads who followed their sheep, they were considered unattached to a place, a quality so prized in that world. (Consider that it wasn’t good enough for Joseph to turn in his census documents in his place of residence, Nazareth, but had to go to his ancestral city, Bethlehem.) God didn’t send cherubim to alert Caesar, but he sent angels – probably those same angels that had been singing since last March’s “Fiat!” — to let the shepherds in on the secret. Later, three exotic foreigners will show up with equally exotic gifts. 

The beginning of our salvation starts at the Nativity. God so loved us he just didn’t do something for us we couldn’t do for ourselves — he became one of us. Catholic teaching, as the Council of Chalcedon puts it, is clear: Jesus Christ is true God and true man. Not God masquerading as man but God as man.

God didn’t do this for the angels: their fall is eternal. God doesn’t leave creation “subject to futility” or put it under another dominion. God came, and came not just to put the human Humpty Dumpty back together again but to give him an even greater dignity and possibility than he even had before.

“God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son …” (John 3:16).

Just stop and think about how amazing the message of Christianity is: God became man so that man could share the very life of God. God became man, not because he was deserving — in fact, he was only deserving of his failure — but out of love, even amidst human rebellion. 

The truly amazing paradox is that, faced with those truths, there are still people who say, “I’m not interested.”

This Mystery is represented in art by early Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli. “Mystical Nativity” hangs in the National Gallery, London.

Why this painting? Because it depicts the truly cosmic dimensions of what happened that first Christmas. Most Nativity paintings show only the human (and animal) actors, sometimes with an angel or two thrown in for effect. Botticelli illustrates the joyous significance of that day for the whole created order.

The angelic presence in this painting is immense. That ought to remind us that, while we profess our belief in God who created “all things, visible and invisible,” we sometimes forget about that invisible “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) around us. Our attachment to visibility causes us to neglect the “bigger picture.”

In this painting, angelic joy is overflowing. Twelve heavenly angels dance, casting down their crowns.  Three angels, alluding to the Trinity, sit atop the manger. The center angel reads a book, presumably the prophecies of what is taking place. Angels are also guardians not just of persons but of places: are they the guardian angels of the manger?

Other guardian angels escort men from the right and left to the manger scene, pointing out to them what’s happening, crowning them in laurel leaves, because God has already declared man’s victory over sin in Christ. The two on the right are shepherds; the three on the left, in humbler garb, Magi. At the bottom of the painting, three pairs of persons — men and angels — embrace. Fraternity is not just a temporal, this-worldly thing.

Lest we lose sight amid this era of good feelings why this birth was necessary, however, notice that beneath the feet of those men and angels at the bottom, little demons are scurrying for cover, because they know Satan is on the ropes.

At the center of the painting, of course, we have the three dramatis personae: Jesus, his Mother Mary, and Joseph. Parents, like all good parents, are keeping watch. Note, also, that in that center field appear ox and donkey. The non-human animate world also rejoices that the new Adam on that straw will exercise an ever-greater dominion, an “everlasting dominion,” than the old Adam. The donkey, for his role in making this night possible, gets a prize position. Behind both animals opens the wider natural world, depicted by woods: all creation is here.

“A Son is born for us.” Is the mystery of Christmas poverty? In one sense, yes. In another, though, Christmas reminds us how God has made a rich man of the human pauper. God reminds us how precious his image and likeness in us is to him, a reality we so easily forget. And he gives truth to the lines in Harry Belafonte’s modern Christmas song, “Mary’s Boy Child”:

Trumpets sound and angels sing
Listen to what they say:
That man will live forevermore
Because of Christmas Day.
Cardinal-elect Víctor Manuel Fernández was appointed by Pope Francis on July 1, 2023, to become the next prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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