In his painting The Birth of Christ, Geertgen tot Sint Jans tells the story of the Nativity through faces surrounded by the play of light and dark. The artist unites the narrative of Jesus’ birth and the deep theological reflection on the Incarnation from the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Geertgen tot Sint Jans layers John’s symbolic language onto the Nativity story through his use of light in the image. The infant Christ is a heavenly body, radiating his light onto those who surround the manger, a true light of the human race whose radiance scatters the darkness. His radiance brightens the face of Mary his mother and the angels paying him homage. Further in the background, his light is present through the Word, the message of glad tidings that the angel brings to the barely visible shepherds gathered in the field. This angel floats directly above the manger—replacing the star we see in other Nativity images and reflecting the light of Christ, just as a star reflects the light of the sun.
The angels that surround the manger resemble children. With serene faces, they are young girls in pious adoration. The young faces lit up by the radiance of Christ invite us to be one of them, to accept Christ and know that we are beloved children of God. First among us to do this was Mary, which is why her illuminated face and figure are most prominent in the scene—she is the first to say yes to Christ and to offer herself to him in total self-gift.
What is the power that is granted to the children of God? It is the power of God made perfect in weakness, humility, and service—not the power of domination, oppression, or brawn. Those who surround the manger are images of powerlessness in the eyes of the world—shepherds who live on the margins of society, beasts of burden in the service of humans, young and female faces, and the face of a man who finds his bride with child but remains loyal to her. It is to these that Christ comes in the most powerless image of all—a naked infant nestled in a trough. Behold the Word whose power brings us life.
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, director of ministerial formation at Saint John's University School of Theology and Seminary.
Related Ignatian reflection on this week’s art
Say: Jesus was sent by God, the Father, to bring light to the world and share his message. Jesus’ message is for all of us to live as good, faithful people. Using magazines and newspapers, have children cut out pictures of different people from all over the world and make a collage that shows how the Light of Jesus Christ touches us all. Display the collages around the room or in the vestibule of the church during the week leading up to Christmas.
Ask: What do we mean when we say “margins of society”? Allow answers, and then repeat to children the reflection’s line: Those who surround the manger are images of powerlessness in the eyes of the world. Ask children why shepherds, children, and unwed mothers were considered on the margins of society in Jesus’ time. Have children think about those who are considered on the margins of society today. Ask children to name ways we can personally help those who are in need, such as donating food and clothing to the homeless and visiting the ill and homebound. Lead children in prayer for those who need God and our support the most, especially at this time of year, when many might not have the warm comfort of shelter.