The title of this essay is duplicated: it is the title of Botticelli’s painting and the theme I want to explore.
On Sunday we profess our faith in God who is the Creator of “all things, visible and invisible”.
A purely visible and earthly way of seeing the feast today is to think of the manger in Bethlehem: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, some animals. Some might add shepherds, others magi. This is what was “visible”.
Sandro Botticelli wants to add “the invisible”. He cannot widen your natural field of vision because what he wants to show you is naturally beyond. (This is why, 10 years ago, the translation of the Profession of Faith changed from “visible and invisible” to “visible and invisible.” There are realities that you can but maybe just not yet seen, and there are realities which – at least in this life and without a special grace – are “invisible”).
But Botticelli wants to open your eyes to a vision of faith on the reality of this day. “Mystic Nativity” is the result.
Today, I would say, is one of the seven days on which the axis of all human history revolves.
My choice of these seven days is: (1) the creation of man and woman; (2) the fall and the promise of a redeemer; (3) Christmas; (4) Good Friday; (5) Easter; (6) Pentecost; and (7) the last day. Like the plates (“articles”) of the Profession of Faith, only one remains in the future.
The very year that we are counting, and to which in a week’s time we will say goodbye, stands on that day.
James Allan Francis’ famous sermon “A Lonely Life” recognizes that what happened that day shaped “the life of man on earth” more than all other great “historical” events put together. .
On that first Christmas, without a doubt, there were a lot of “important” things that happened. Those who wrote them down almost certainly did not think of a poor boy born in a Jewish town to a single donkey they had never heard of and named “Bethlehem.”
But, as Phillips Brooks Carol says of the dark streets of Bethlehem, “the hopes and fears of all the years // are fulfilled in you tonight.”
What the Father promised our First Parents, as they tasted the first bitter fruits of the forbidden fruit, hardly imagining what they had set in motion, their chance to recover what they lost lay in a distant future a day called Christmas.
As generations passed and a new nation was formed from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a boy was almost sacrificed on top of a mountain, a brother was sold as a slave by his brothers, a nation emerged freed from the reign of a superpower of her day by “signs and wonders of the Lord”, as Isaiah speaks of a virgin with a child, Micah comforts Bethlehem as not being “the least among the clans of Judah” , Jeremiah speaks of a prophet known from the womb, and Zechariah envisions the implausible – a king coming on a donkey – they all sought that day.
Without the coming of this Child – without the coming of a Child destined to die and be resuscitated for us – “our birth would have been no gain if we had not been redeemed” (Exsultet). Christmas and Easter go hand in hand: “That night” and “that night” give meaning to our life.
There has always been a current in human thought, which has grown stronger nowadays, which doubts the purpose and meaning of human existence, which despairs and worries about the absence of meaning.
Noel says it’s a lie. Not because it’s pretty or consoling to say beautiful things. Not because “it’s the season” for having happy thoughts. Not because little children, Christmas trees and candy canes make us feel better or arouse sentimental thoughts about childhood or more pleasant times.
Because the Son of God became Man and was born … as Charles Wesley reminds us, “born so that man would not die again”. Christmas claims that the Last Word (John 1: 1) – of life, meaning, and God is Love (1 John 4: 8) – Love of flesh and blood (John 1:14) – in the life given which has no end, unless we choose to commit spiritual suicide.
This is the message of Christianity. Wrap your head around. Then ask why anyone would give up that for an amorphous, spongy non-promise of “None”.
In Botticelli’s painting, in the foreground is the purely historical, the purely visible: the Child Jesus, Saint Joseph and Mary, the Mother of God.
All around them is the joy of heaven and earth. Human beings and angels kiss wildly all around. On the right, shepherds, advised by an angel. In the foreground, men and angels hug and kiss. A riot of angels in the sky, wearing palms (signs of victory) brought down their crowns (another sign of victory and salvation – Revelation 4:10) in recognition of the Man-God.
Botticelli’s painting exudes the true joy of Christmas, because it is a holiday where earth and sky come together.
There is almost universal jubilation. Practically. Unless you take the time to notice it, all the way down there. Look at the angels in the foreground. To the right of the green angel’s leg, between the white angel and the man in the red mantle, and to the left of the man in the blue mantle, monstrous demons rush to the earth. Art historians identify seven devils, a perversion since, for the Hebrews, seven was a number of perfection, hence the perfection of imperfection. It may also be an allusion to Luke 11: 24-26, where Jesus speaks of an exorcised demon returning “with seven other spirits more wicked than himself.” (This passage also ends with a cry from a woman in the crowd, “Blessed is she who brought you into the world and healed you” (v. 27), providing a possible connection to the Nativity scene).
Botticelli lived in the second half of the 15th century. If you remember Dante, his fellow Florentine who lived about 200 years earlier, the poet located hell underground.
There is a theological tradition which says that when God revealed to the angels his plan to create man, “a little less than the angels” (Psalm 8: 5; Hebrews 2: 7), Satan and the demons rebelled, repelled à la hybrid, one foot in the spiritual world, one in the material. For them, anybody would have been “the wrong body”. Today, the Incarnation, the Son of God in the “false” body exposes the depths of the Love of God.
Our Catholic tradition speaks of guardian angels who accompany people throughout their earthly lives and comforts us in the confidence that we are supported by a large but invisible “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12: 1) praying and rooting for our Salvation. Botticelli’s “Mystical Nativity” seeks to make the invisible visible.