[The well-respected Northern Italian artist Lorenzo Lotto painted this engaging picture of the Birth of Jesus. Signed and dated in 1523 by the artist himself, this oil painting is on display at the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena, Italy. The small, interpretative details of this High Renaissance Nativity scene set it apart from others and open a way to look at the birth of Jesus with the eyes of faith.]
In the distant foreground of the painting, there stands a single shepherd. The angels have not yet made the announcement of the birth of Jesus. We are seeing Mary and Joseph in the intimate moments they share alone after the birth of God’s only begotten Son.
Both Mary and Joseph gaze upon the newborn Jesus with awe and wonder, their hearts lifted up to God in prayer. The mystery of God’s Son taking on our human flesh and becoming one with us moves us to awe before the humility of so loving a God. No word before the Word made flesh, just the silence of adoration and wonder.
Jesus is placed in a manger, the feedbox of the animals. In Bethlehem (House of Bread), Jesus comes to be the Bread of life. With his teaching, he nourishes our minds with the Truth. With his love, he satisfies our longing hearts. With his very Body and Blood in the Eucharist, he lifts us up from this earth, from the lowly, the materialistic, to heaven and the very life of God.
Turtle-doves nest in the eaves of the stable. They are symbols of innocence, love and poverty. The two doves remind us of the love of Mary and Joseph, bound together in holy matrimony. The Virgin and her most chaste spouse truly are joined with purest love. God’s grace makes them the model parents who willingly make every sacrifice necessary to co-operate with God’s plan for their child.
As one day they will present Jesus in the Temple, making the offering of two turtle doves, as befits the poor, this day, at his birth, they accept God’s Son in true poverty, depending not on the things of this world, but on the providence of God.
Three angels hovering over the stable are fumbling with their musical score. They are caught off guard and have not yet begun to sing the first Gloria in excelsis Deo. This touch of humor reminds us not to fret that Christ comes into our lives at moments when we least expect. He comes because he loves us, not because we are prepared and merit his grace.
The one totally unexpected detail of this painting is the crucifix in the left corner of the picture. Its presence is chronologically inaccurate, but theologically appropriate. Jesus is born as the Savior who will accomplish our redemption as he who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness…[humbling] himself,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:7-8).
Born of a Virgin and entrusted to the paternal care of a carpenter, God’s own Son will learn his father’s trade and fashion, from the things of this earth, works to serve others, but none so great as the wooden Cross on which he fashioned the world’s salvation.
As one day, the beaten, bruised and bloody hands of Jesus will be fastened to the Cross in a gesture of love’s embrace, already now his tender and innocent hands reach out not just to Mary and to Joseph, but to each of us, to embrace us, sinners and saints, in the love of God this Christmas day.
As we celebrate the birth of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I extend to all the faithful, religious, deacons and priests and to their loved ones as well, especially the sick and the suffering, my prayers and blessing. May the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, find a ready welcome in your hearts and fill your homes with his peace and joy.
Arthur J. Serratelli