The Nativity: A Hospital Epiphany and Three Works of Art

            In September of 2017, I went to Cottage Hospital to see our newborn grandson.  This was during the first year of our former President’s time in office.  I must have heard some distressing news item as I drove to the hospital — I remember walking down the hallway toward “Labor and Delivery”, feeling despondent.  I came to the nursery.  There were seven or eight newborns snug in their blankets, sleeping in basinets.  I took a moment to look at each one.  I remember hearing these words: “Steve, you may feel discouraged about the world right now, but get over it. These innocent children deserve a chance in this world.  Stop moping and do your part.”

            In a recent post I included a comment from a friend of David Brooks.  As she held her infant for the first time, she realized “I love this child more than evolution can explain.”
            Endless songs, carols, poems, sermons, Christmas cards and works of art have been inspired by the story of the birth of Jesus.  There are three images I want to share with you today – two photographs and a painting. 

            In 2009, the Guardian asked nine artists to reimagine the nativity in contemporary society. The photographer Tom Hunter submitted this piece.  The lighting and pose reflect classic manger scenes, especially from the Renaissance. But Jesus was born in a perilous time, and his parents had to flee their homeland to preserve his life.  Having the mother and child be Somali refugees makes the social context of the birth clear.

“Nativity,” Tom Hunter, 2009

            This “Nativity” was created in 1865 by Julia Margaret Cameron.  She began her artistic career at age 48 when her daughter gave her a camera; she became a pioneer in portrait photography.  Some critics thought she was overly sentimental, but I like her work.  This “Nativity” isn’t staged as a manger scene, but simply portrays a working-class family with an infant.  And who is the mother embracing?  A sibling? A cousin?  Or an angel?

“Nativity,” Julia Margaret Cameron

            We close with the visionary “Mystical Nativity” by Botticelli, created in 1501.  Here’s the scene at the center of the canvas:

Boticelli, “Mystical Nativity,” close-up, 1501

Joseph may be sleeping, the baby is reaching for his mother, and Mary is adoring her child as animals stand quietly in the rear.  But Botticelli imagined a scene beyond ordinary sight, where the meaning of the birth is celebrated:

Boticelli, “Mystical Nativity,” 1501

Angels are everywhere…embracing each other at the bottom, drawing close to the manger in the center, and joining hands in a circle dance at the top.  There’s no suggestion that Joseph and Mary can sense their presence in this moment, but, as viewers, we are invited to see it all.

            Botticelli apparently painted this at a time of great anxiety in Florence.  Political leadership was in an upheaval and some prophets proclaimed the end of the world was near.  Perhaps this is the message: no matter what challenges we face in the world, the birth of this child represents the appearance of light amid darkness, and is reason for great rejoicing.

            “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.”

            May we honor the birth of every child as a sacred event, and accept the responsibility of creating a better world on their behalf.