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One glorious baby

One glorious baby

I come seeking the Christ child.

Today’s trip to the National Gallery of Art has a distinct purpose. I want to see Nativity depictions. On the drive to D.C., I listened to Handel’s Messiah – which is a holiday tradition – and it put me a contemplative mood about Jesus’s birth.

I had a limited selection. The Dutch and Flemish galleries were closed for renovations, but, thankfully, the Italian Renaissance painters did not disappoint.  Grazie.

Here’s a lovely rendering of the magi’s visit.  Benvenuto di Giovanni painted this around 1470.  In it we see a stream of people leaving a distant city in the background.  In the foreground, the three visitors, sumptuously dressed, gather around the holy family while their entourage waits in the wings.  One of the wise men kisses the foot of the infant Jesus.

Poor Joseph, depicted as an old (and, I assume by his walking stick, feeble) man, seems oddly bored by the whole procedure.  Or maybe he’s just napping.  Tuckered out by the trip.

What strikes me about this painting are the halos.  The ornate ones of the family are, of course, a way of showing respect.  Of designating glory to them.  They are, after all, a unique family.

Glory is on my mind, having listened to The Messiah.  Much of the first third of it deals with prophecies concerning the revealing of God’s glory in the coming of his Servant:

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.  Isaiah 40:5

Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.  Isaiah 60:1

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.  Isaiah 9:2

I can see why artists of this age wanted to give paint a radiant Jesus. But meditating on this today, I realized that in both the stories of visitors to the manger, the glory revealed was in the night sky – in the heavens, as it were. The shepherds were shown the angel host. The magi saw the brilliant star. (You can see a spiky sun in the Benvenuto painting, hovering above Mary.)

God announced the birth of his son with glory -- just not wrapped around him. Not emanating from him.

For that reason, perhaps I like this simple stone bas relief of the Magi’s visit better. No pomp.  No halos. Just ordinary people (though still an old, lame Joseph) trying to grasp this extraordinary birth.

The glory of the Lord revealed in the arrival of a helpless baby.  It still boggles the mind.

And elicits worship.

Lord Jesus, thank you for your willingness to come into this harsh world by “taking the very nature of a servant.”  Help us to sit quietly in this mystery and worship you.

Reader: What’s your favorite rendering of the Nativity?  Do you lean toward pomp or just the circumstance?

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Bruce Van Patter

As a freelance illustrator, graphic recorder, and author, Bruce is on a lifelong journey to delight in the handiwork of the Creator. And he’s always ready for fellow travelers.

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