Paul Gauguin’s 1896 Bébé (The Nativity) invites us into the mystery of the Incarnation in all of its earthy, human intimacy. The Word becomes flesh in the context of this Tahitian scene, where two women, a child, an angel, and some farm animals share a space. Closest to us is a young Tahitian woman, seated and gazing intently, while holding an infant. Her focus is on the far left, where another woman, surrounded in light, rests on straw, as farm animals amble about her. An angel stands firmly and protectively above the young Tahitian woman and child.
In The Nativity, Christ is born. He enters messily into the imperfection of our lives, a gift of himself for humankind so that we may see his glory now and forever. What profound mystery—the young Tahitian woman captures our limited capacity to take all this in as her face reveals a grave intensity holding this gift. What is she thinking? Perhaps she is awed by the woman on the straw, who has given birth, given her will, heart, body, and soul over to new life coming into the world through her. Perhaps she is overwhelmed by that new life, that gift resting in her very arms now, instead of remaining with his mother. Perhaps she is engulfed by the thought of what it might mean for her to bear Christ for the world now that she has him.
The Tahitian woman is in adoration. In this scene she is the wise woman, though privileged to have the scene arrive in her context, instead of her traveling to seek it. She is the wise woman who receives a gift instead of bringing it. She does not fully comprehend the mystery but senses its gravity—and how it engages her fully and intimately. She holds the child, the gift, the glory, taking it in. How will she bring his light to the world?
Commentary is by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis, and evangelization at Loyola University New Orleans.