The Mystical Nativity of Jesus Christ

SCRIPTURES & ART: Sandro Botticelli wants to open your eyes to a vision of faith about the reality of Christmas Day.

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

The title of this essay does double duty: it is the title of Botticelli’s painting and the theme I want to explore.

On Sundays, we profess our faith in God who is Creator of “all things, visible and invisible.” 

A purely visible, earthbound way of seeing today’s feast is to think of the manger in Bethlehem: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, some animals. Some might add shepherds, others Magi. That’s what was “visible.”

Sandro Botticelli wants to add the “invisible.” He can’t expand your natural field of vision, because what he wants to show you is naturally beyond it. (That’s why, 10 years ago, the translation of the Profession of Faith was changed from “seen and unseen” to “visible and invisible.” There are realities you can but maybe just haven’t yet seen, and there are realities that — at least in this life and without a special grace — are “invisible”). 

But Botticelli wants to open your eyes to a vision of faith about the reality of this day. “Mystic Nativity” is the result.

Today, I would argue, is one of seven days on which the axis of the whole of human history turns.

My choice of those seven days are: (1) the creation of man and woman; (2) the fall and promise of a redeemer; (3) Christmas; (4) Good Friday; (5) Easter; (6) Pentecost; and (7) the Last Day. Like the planks (“articles”) in the Profession of Faith, only one remains in the future.

The very year we number, and to which in a week we will say farewell, stands on this day.

James Allan Francis’s famous sermon, “One Solitary Life,” recognizes that what happened on this day has shaped “the life of man upon the earth” more than all the other great “historic” events put together. 

On that first Christmas, there were undoubtedly many “important” things that happened. Those who noted them almost certainly did not reckon with a poor Boy born in some one-donkey Jewish town they’d never heard of named “Bethlehem.”

But, as Phillips Brooks carol puts it about Bethlehem’s dark streets, “the hopes and fears of all the years//are met in Thee tonight.”

What the Father promised to our First Parents, as they tasted the first bitter fruits of the forbidden fruit, hardly imagining what they had set in motion, their chance to recover what they lost lay in some distant future on a day that would be called Christmas. 

As generations passed by, and a new nation is formed from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, a boy is almost sacrificed on a mountain top, a brother is sold into slavery by his brothers, a nation emerges free from the rule of a superpower of its day by “signs and wonders of the Lord,” as Isaiah speaks of a virgin with child, Micah consoles Bethlehem as not being “least among the clans of Judah,” Jeremiah talks of a prophet known from the womb, and Zechariah envisions the implausible — a king arriving on a donkey — they all looked for this day.

Without the coming of this Child — without the coming of a Child destined to die and rise for us — “our birth would have been no gain, had we not been redeemed” (Exsultet). Christmas and Easter go together: “This night” and “that night” give our lives sense. 

There has always been a current in human thinking, one that has grown stronger in our day, which doubts the purpose and meaning of human existence, which despairs and anguishes about meaninglessness. 

Christmas says that is a lie. Not because it’s pretty or consoling to say nice things. Not because “’tis the season” to have happy thoughts. Not because little kids and Christmas trees and candy canes make us feel better or kindle sentimental thoughts of childhood or nicer times. 

Because the Son of God became Man and was born ... as Charles Wesley reminds us, “born that man may no more die.” Christmas claims that the final Word (John 1:1) — of life, meaning, and God is Love (1 John 4:8) — Flesh and Blood Love (John 1:14) — in life given that has no end, unless we choose to commit spiritual suicide.

That’s the message of Christianity. Wrap your head around it. Then ask why anybody would give this up for an amorphous, squishy non-promise of “None.”

In Botticelli’s painting, front and center is the purely historical, the purely visible: the Baby Jesus, St. Joseph and Mary, the Mother of God.

All around them is the joy of heaven and earth. Human beings and angels wildly embrace all around. On the right are some shepherds, counseled by an angel. In the foreground, men and angels hug and embrace. A riot of angels in heaven, carrying palms (signs of victory) cast down their crowns (another sign of victory and salvation — Revelation 4:10) in acknowledgement of the God-Man. 

Botticelli’s painting exudes true Christmas joy, because it is a feast when earth and heaven are joined.

There is practically universal jubilation. Practically. Except, if you take time to notice, at the very bottom. Look at the angels in the foreground. To the right of the green angel’s leg, between the white angel and the red cloaked man, and to the left of the blue-cloaked man, monstrous devils scurry into the earth. Art historians identify seven devils, a perversion since, for the Hebrews, seven was a number of perfection, hence, the perfection of imperfection. It may also be an allusion to Luke 11:24-26, where Jesus speaks of an exorcised demon returning “with seven other spirits more wicked than itself.” (That passage also concludes with a cry from a woman in the crowd, “Blessed is she who gave birth to you and nursed you” (v. 27), providing a possible connection to the Nativity scene). 

Botticelli lived in the second half of the 15th century. If you remember Dante, his fellow Florentine who lived about 200 years earlier, the poet situated hell beneath the earth. 

There is a theological tradition that says that, when God revealed to the angels his plan to create man, “a little less than the angels” (Psalm 8:5; Hebrews 2:7), Satan and the devils rebelled, repulsed at the hybrid, one foot in the spiritual world, one in the material. For them, any body would have been “the wrong body.” Today, the Incarnation, the Son of God in the “wrong” body exposes the depths of God’s Love. 

  Our Catholic tradition speaks of guardian angels who accompany people throughout their earthly lives, and buoys us in confidence that we are supported by a great but invisible “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) praying and rooting for our salvation. Botticelli’s “Mystical Nativity” seeks to make the invisible visible.

Sandro Botticelli, “Mystic Nativity,” 1500 (full)
Sandro Botticelli, “Mystic Nativity,” 1500