With the big day just a few hours away, here’s a little something for Christmas. It’s a painting called “The Mystical Nativity” (or rather, that’s what it has come to be known as), and it was painted by Sandro Botticelli in Italy around 1500-1501. And I’m seriously loving it at the moment!
All the classic elements are there – baby, Mum, (adoptive) Dad, ox and ass, shepherds, wise men and angels. In fact, the painting is covered in angels, framing the action in the centre of the painting. They circle above in the golden dome of heaven, and they stand around below pointing men toward the new-born Jesus. Dressed in white, green and red, the traditional colours of faith, hope and charity, they carry olive branches and banners proclaim peace to men of good will.
So far, so nativity. But as you look closer there are some strange and unexpected details. Botticelli’s version of the nativity is sometimes described as a “double painting,” because Botticelli was painting two realities at the same time. At the bottom of the painting, the angels awkwardly embrace men; they’re lifting them up from their suffering as hope enters the world. Around their feet, seven demons (apparently – I could only find six) flee for their lives as God-made-man makes his entrance.
And there are hints that point to how he will bring about the peace the angels promise. The baby lies on a sheet that suggests the burial shroud his body will be wrapped in a few years later. And behind him, the donkey’s back clearly displays a cross in dark fur.
Botticelli paints the boy who is Immanuel, “God with us,” born in obscurity to humble parents. But he also paints Jesus, “God saves,” whose birth is announced by choirs of jubilant angels, but which is also overshadowed by the death he’d die to save the world.
As I’ve read and spoken on the Christmas story again this year, I’ve been really struck by the choir of angels who appear in Luke 2. As a group of shepherds tend their flocks, an angel appears and announces the birth of the Lord Jesus. And then…
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2v13-14)
At the announcement of the birth of Jesus the air is filled with angels all praising God. Then as quickly as they appeared, they’re gone, and the shepherds head off to find the baby, with little more to go on that the fact he’ll be lying in a feeding trough.
The angels sing a song of two parts. They sing glory to God as He steps in among His people to bring them back to him, and they proclaim peace on earth to those on whom God’s favour rests. It’s a song of heaven and earth reconnecting. The peace they sing about isn’t a ceasefire or an end to family arguments – it’s peace with the God of the Universe as sin is paid and the world is offered a way back to him. No wonder they sing!
The next time a choir of angels like this turns up is in Revelation, in John’s glimpse behind the scenes of heaven.
Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they were saying: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Rev 5v11-12)
A hundred million angels circle the throne singing glory to the Lamb looking as if it had been slain. They’re praising Jesus again. Only this time, His mission is finished and his work is done. Instead of lying in hay and cow spit, he’s seated on the throne at the centre of heaven. And although most of the world missed it the first time, this time the rest of creation joins in as every creature in every corner of creation sings his praises.
The choir of angels, appearing over a field of sheep to a handful of shepherds, point to the two realities of what’s going on just like Botticelli. The humblest and most human of births delivering the Son of God to save the world. And that’s worth celebrating this Christmas.