Nativity – 25 December 2018
Here is a familiar scene, shepherds have come from the fields to adore the new born babe in the stable.
The eyes of all the creatures of earth, humans and animals, are on the baby, who is neither swaddled nor lying in a manger. Instead the baby Jesus lies naked on the ground, radiating light and splendour. The details of this picture are shaped by two sources, St Luke’s Gospel and St Bridget of Sweden, a hugely popular mystic who had a vision of the nativity. St Bridget saw the Virgin kneeling on the ground in prayer with her back to the manger, and ‘the glorious infant lying on the ground’. The Son is fully incarnate, lying on the dust of the earth from which God made Adam.
The angels in this scene are all wearing liturgical garments (copes, stoles, albs). Fresh from the worship of heaven they now worship the baby on earth. What are the angels at the front of the painting looking at? Maybe the flowers which are full of theological meaning: the white iris and red lily allude to the theme of purity and Jesus’ blood spilled during the Passion of the Christ, the purple columbine represents the sorrow of the Virgin Mary, while the carnations symbolize the Holy Trinity. Or maybe the angels are looking out of the painting, which would have stood on an altar, to the bread and wine in the hands of the priest, as they become the body and blood of Christ.
This painting is the central panel from the Portinari Altarpiece (we looked at a detail from the top of the left-hand panel yesterday).
This altarpiece was painted in Bruges in c1477/78 by Hugo van der Goes for the Portinari family chapel in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuovo in Florence. One of the first modern hospitals, it offered not just care of the sick but medical treatment, resulting in a very high recovery rate for patients.
In Christ, your Word became flesh,
and was born of the Virgin Mary.
He emptied himself, taking our human form,
That through his incarnation and passion
we might come to share in his divine nature.
Scottish Episcopal Church, Christmas Liturgy
O Holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us, today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O, come to us, abide with us
Our Lord, Emmanuel.
Carol: O little town of Bethlehem