Our celebration of the great feast days should instantiate in our lives the realities they communicate. For Christmas, the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord, our actions, such as gift giving, caroling, the symbols of green life in winter, should make present the gift of the new life of Christ coming into the world. Like the angels, we sing our joy at the arrival of our Savior.
Music provides one of our most common experiences of Christmas and this is fitting. Even in the midst of the secularization of the feast, the most profound and cherished musical pieces still reflect the sacred mystery we celebrate. Nonetheless, it can be difficult to see the realities of Christmas. We take them for granted. They have become hackneyed, plastered on Hallmark cards and shaped into plastic ornaments. Christmas can become marked by kitsch and confined to the sentimental.
To respond to the many threats to our experience of true festivity, we must interiorly reclaim the mysteries of faith so that we can translate them into the world around us. This renewed experience of the reality of Christ’s birth can be aided by a broader use of art in our celebration. I am presenting a triptych of art, which entails a movement from a renewed formation of the inner word, to its outer expression in an image, culminating in an outer instantiation in the world.
Panel 1: Inner Word
Nativity by John Donne
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov’d imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod’s jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.
Knowledge begins in the senses, but as come to understand what we sense, we form an inner word that expresses our understanding. St. Thomas Aquinas relates that the “imagination forms for itself an image of an absent thing.” In the case of the Word made flesh, Christ’s body provides the means by which we can sense him in our human fashion. We have not seen the Incarnate Word, however, except veiled in the Eucharist, and so we must receive him in faith through the words of others. Nonetheless, as we reflect on what we have received in, we add our own words or images in our imagination in an attempt to comprehend the mystery, though it ultimately transcends our capacities.
Donne’s poem provides great service to us in forming our imagination to receive the newborn Christ. He invites our soul to see with the eyes of faith, as the infinite enters the finite, cloistered in a voluntary imprisonment. Though he returns us to the scriptural narrative, he asks us in faith to place ourselves within the story. Donne moves us to take the inner word, or image, of Christ we conjure in our imagination as a reality, an object of affection like the newborn babe lying in the manger. The two are very related: Christ revealed himself in the flesh of an infant, precisely so that we could relate to him in his vulnerability and show affection to our Creator.
Panel 2: Outer Image
“Nativity” by Giotto
Lower Church of San Francesco, Assisi
If the mind understands and grasps a reality in the inner word and then seeks to express it, the imagination must conform and become an instrument of the inner word. What is the right way to express the nativity? It is not a matter of introducing new material to overcome the over familiarity of the subject matter. It comes down to allowing the imagination to become a fit instrument of the inner word in order to provide a fitting and dignified expression to it. This outer expression makes the inner word more accessible, as it provides it with tangible expression.
Giotto, in this image of the nativity, masterfully combines a majestic, iconic scene with a soft and gentle approachability of its figures, a style making him a fit transmitter of the vision of St. Francis. This image particularly fits Francis’s Basilica as il poverello himself created the tradition of the nativity scene, a way of making the inner reality of faith present in tangible form. I cannot sufficiently comment on all of the imagery, but the way in which Giotto draws the ox and ass directly into the praise of the angels strikes me as particularly fitting for how much we are drawn up beyond ourselves into the praise of the God made man. Also, the surprise and attention of the shepherd grabs my attention and imagination as Christmas should be a time in which we break from our mundane routine and turn our attention to the breaking forth of God into our lives.
Panel 3: Embodiment
Nativity Façade by Gaudí
The Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
To get a much better sense of the whole space and how the church shapes the city of Barcelona itself, see this video released by the Basilica:
Unlike words and images which can remain private and reserved to small audiences, architecture makes a public statement. It enters into the culture necessarily and shapes the city in a concrete way. Thus, church architecture provides a public proclamation of the faith of Christians, which should serve as a sign of the beauty and transcendence of the Christian faith. As St. John Paul II reinforced often: “Faith that does not become culture is not wholly embraced, fully thought, or faithfully lived.” We cannot let our own inner word of faith in Christ’s Incarnation remain simply an inner word. We must translate it into our lives and into the world as a sign for others.
Guadí is one of the few artists who found a new and modern idiom that speaks to our culture in a compelling way, while remaining true to the tradition. The Sagrada Familia, his magnum opus dedicated to the Holy Family, itself serves as a public symbol and embodiment of the Incarnation, as it sacramentally translates salvation history into the city. The Nativity Façade is one of the three facades marking the life of Christ (the others being the Passion and Glory Façades). The façade tells the story of Christ’s birth within a broader conception of the cosmos in its natural imagery (a turtle, doves, a cypress tree for example), three porticos dedicated to the theological virtues, soaring towers dedicated to four of the apostles, and the angels’ song, Sanctus, engraved nine times across it. The structure brings the Nativity to the world in such an arresting way that even the indifferent flock to its beauty, with its message presented in visible form.
The Solemnity of the Nativity celebrates the Word become flesh. As we appropriate the reality of the feast, we must seek to translate the birth of Word concretely into our own lives. As we sing carols, we should also activate our imagination, express that image, and live it out in a public way. Drawing upon the glory of our tradition, we can receive nourishment in this effort. Great art teaches us how to perceive, express, and live. In the case of the Nativity, great art can shape our own embodiment of the Incarnate Word in our lives.