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This painting is called “Nativity”. The decision to avoid the definite article illuminates a particularly fascinating and miraculous aspect of Jesus’ advent. Notwithstanding the overwhelming significance of Jesus coming, He came very much like you and I came. His birth was like your birth and mine. He came into our dirt and sweat and blood and milk. He arrived into our hunger and discomfort, just as everyone else on the planet ever has. His birth was, in that sense, unremarkable. It hurt his mother and Him.
It was very likely troubling to Joseph as well (his vexation probably complicated by their displacement from home) and likely not so troubling to the midwives, smiling through the bloody ordeal as midwives do. I know that no midwives are mentioned in the scriptures, but bear in mind that almost none of the details of his birth are mentioned in these holy texts. Even the stable is inferred by the brief mention of an improvised cradle– his being “laid in a manger”. The chance of a young woman having her first child away from her usual residence and not being attended by women (even strangers) seems to me very unlikely. Women would come. They would hear; they would help. I feel sure of it.
In undertaking this sacred subject on such a large scale (the original is 17 feet long) I decided to not look so much for an actual historical reality, but rather to try to fathom an emotional reality to the experience. Virtually all of the visual memory we have of Jesus’ birth has come from centuries of this kind of imagining–the event being so very important, the historical details so very scant.
Perhaps the sheer number of them is a clear indication that I became engaged with the angels. The births of my own children felt so very “attended to” by otherworldly beings. Perhaps they were ancestors and descendants; any who had particular interest in our little nativities. Since none of us would have a chance of salvation without Jesus, it felt obvious that all beings looking to this redemption would take a peculiar interest in this birth. The number of angels in my work kept multiplying. I have counted them several times, but I come up with different numbers. I rather like not knowing exactly.
My original plan to include the conventional beasts was eclipsed by this cloud of witnesses. I did have a bit of room for a dog and her pups. Although no mention is made of any stable occupants, I wanted the animals to be represented and I love dogs. They have long been a symbol of fidelity in western art, so I put them in since Jesus’ coming is the ultimate and most impossible example of keeping the unfathomable promise of His essential condescension. Only the dog can see the glorious river of angels. The mortals depicted, like us, are understandably and rightly distracted with the quotidian tasks at hand.
I believe that the human hunger for dramatic conclusions (to sporting events or books or movies) is linked to our own impossible redemption. Our chances for reconciliation were all but lost when…this happened. Part of our attraction to these dramatic endings is because it is, in part, our story too. He said He would come. Then impossibly and improbably, He did, but not as we would have expected. Certainly the epic drama of redemption is far from over, but the message to me is this: He came. He came. Thank God, He came.