This post may be of interest to my Christian brothers and sisters who are not Catholic, as it may give some insight into what we crazy Papists are up to.
This nativity has it all: Angel choirs dancing above the stable; Faith, Hope, and Charity perched on the roof. To the left, an angel directs the Wise Men to the Babe; an overwhelmed and elderly Joseph (the typical medieval way he was imagined) sits bowing near the Infant. Mary, on her knees with folded hands, worships her newborn Son while the ox and ass look on. To the right, another angel directs two shepherds.
Below, three people are being embraced or perhaps lifted up by angels, cheek to cheek. Seven little demons flee, several impaled on the instruments of torture they carry.
Except for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, all the people are crowned or are being crowned with laurel – the crown of victory. The fat little Baby is reaching for his mother and sucking his fingers.
Subtler details: the stable is a cave, a part of the earth. Through the back of the cave one sees a beautiful forest – Eden-like, even. The scale of the forest seen through the cave doesn’t match the forest to the left, as if it’s not part of the same scene.
Although Botticelli was a Renaissance master, he still uses the medieval vocabulary of symbols. Christ was born not merely on the earth, but in the earth. He is not something added to the surface, but rather of the matter of our order of Creation. The ox and the ass in the same way are representatives of Creation itself worshipping the Son. Eden, which is the proper, intended order of Creation for Man, is visible through the cave, where Heaven and Earth meet in the Person of Christ. The veil is drawn back, so that angels rejoice and demons flee.
Ave fit ex Eva, as the medievals were known to say: the ‘Ave’ with which the angel greeted Mary is made from Eva, the pure and innocent Mary saying ‘yes’ replaces the pure and innocent Eve saying ‘no’. Through Mary, God restores, and then some, the proper order of Creation as remembered from Eden. The whole scene captures the wedding of Heaven and Earth, of angels and men, of earthly and heavenly creation.
There is a combination of general representatives and specific individuals. Mary, Joseph, Gabriel, the Wise Men, and Shepherds are particular individuals we know from the story; the angels and the three men at the bottom of the picture are representatives of Heaven and Earth; the men in particular invite us to read ourselves into the scene.
The people for whom this picture was painted would understand that intended part of their reading of themselves into the story is the acceptance of a God-given role – Thy Will be done. Mary is glorious because she perfectly accepted God’s Will for her – the glory is all God’s, but she is its perfect mirror. In the same way, Joseph’s humble, silent acceptance of God’s Will makes him glorious by reflected light. Even the ox and ass are glorious in a similar way, although they act only as extensions of the human beings who raised them and put them in the stable. But that’s what we do – glorify God by how we use the gifts He entrusts to us.
Or how about this one:
Here, the artist uses a conceit – an unseen candle held by Joseph but shielded by his hand from us – so that he can show Mary, Joseph, and the Shepherds lit by the reflected light of the Christ Child, the actual source of light in this picture.
A thousand years later, these ideas, of a cave, of light, of God-with-us Emmanuel, of our place in God’s scheme, of the meeting of Heaven and Earth and the redemption of all Creation, found expression in a thousand church interiors all across Christendom.
We’re used to well-lit interiors, thanks to Edison, but, as designed and used, the interiors of churches necessarily share much with the cave of the stable. In Gothic churches, during the day, at least, light enters filtered by stained glass; at night, only candles and lamps provided light, which would seem very dark to us.
But it is through that cave that we see the new Eden, lit by the Light of Christ.
The cave is also the Tabernacle of the New Covenant, the Holy of Holies, containing Jesus. Yet it is the only the second tabernacle. Mary, greeted by Elizabeth as ‘the mother of my Lord’ – the queen, in the usage of the time – is the first and primary tabernacle, the Holy of Holies as a person. Her humility is perfect, meaning she accepts the role God has given to her with complete abandonment of herself – full of grace.
Yet, because she holds nothing back and gives all to God, she is more perfectly herself than any other purely human person. But doing God’s Will is not passive. We are made in the image and likeness of the Creator and the Savior. Thus, Mary’s surrender – be it done unto me according to Thy Will – results in *activity*, creative, redemptive activity. Always, Mary’s actions in accord with God’s Will are reflections of that Will and activated by it. Yet God choose her and filled her with grace so that she could eternally serve Him, as the Mother of His Son.
The most common name given to Catholic Churches is some form of Notre Dame – Our Lady. You’ll find parish churches and cathedrals named Queen of the Angels, Mother of God, Queen of All Saints, Star of the Sea, Our Lady of Solitude, Our Lady of Victory, Visitation, Mother of Sorrows, and a hundred other names and references to Mary.
Catholics do this because each church is a tabernacle of the New Covenant, a place where the Incarnation continues through the priest when he, acting as Jesus commanded the Apostles, incarnates Him in the bread and wine. By the Divine Will, Mary’s perfect yes brought that Will into this world, uniting Heaven and Earth, making each of us members of a Royal Priesthood, made worthy to enter the Holy of Holies where Christ is present on His altar, the Lamb of God. We then become, each of us, that Tabernacle when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
Christmas means all these things. We honor God by honoring Mary, Queen and Holy of Holies by His Will. The Child in her womb, the Babe in the manger, the Lamb of God on the Cross, the risen Lord, the Pantocrator – Mary was there for all of that. Her work of bringing Jesus into the world, in the image of God and reflecting and embodying His Will, continues eternally.
She always reflects His glory, always points to the Son, always does His Will. We, honoring her, always follow her lead and give worship and glory only to Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.
Have a Happy, Holy, and Blessed Christmas Season! (which runs from sundown today through the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Party hard till then!)