John O’Donohue reads his poem “The Nativity”

Renowned Irish poet John O’Donohue (1956–2008) wrote a poem on each of the Fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary, a set of meditations on key events in the life of Jesus. These are published, along with other poems, in his 2001 volume Conamara Blues. You can hear O’Donohue recite his poem on the Joyful Mystery of the Nativity below. Read along here.

The poem makes ample use of water imagery: Jesus starts as a drop in Mary’s belly that widens into a ripple; the amniotic fluid gathers like a wave almost ready to break; Jesus prepares to “come ashore”; Mary fights back a “tide of tears.”

It emphasizes the physicality of Mary’s pregnancy and labor, declaring (obliquely) in the first two lines how a woman’s menstruation ceases during gestation, then moving on to birthing fluids and rounded bellies and heaving and “red wires of pain.”

Although an ordained priest in the Catholic Church, O’Donohue apparently rejected its teaching on the painless delivery of Christ. Like all biological mothers, Mary experienced the pangs of childbirth. The contractions, the stretching, the pushing, the ripping, the exhaustion.

But unlike any other mother, Mary brought forth, in a literal way, Jesus Christ, the savior of the world.

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Christmas isn’t over

Madonna and Child mosaic

Mosaic by David Hetland, Trinity Lutheran Church, Morehead, Minnesota.

Excerpt from The Vigil: Keeping Watch in the Season of Christ’s Coming by Wendy M. Wright, pp. 116–17:

The church does not abandon the celebration of Christmas on December twenty-sixth. Liturgically, the season stretches out for twelve more days and culminates on the Feast of Epiphany, January sixth. In earlier days, in England, these days were kept as a time of merriment during which ancient customs, such as lighting twelve bonfires for the twelve apostles, were observed. It was also a time of gift-giving; the familiar carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” regales modern carolers with the antics of an eighteenth-century merrymaker who sent his true love a veritable barnyard and theater company of presents as well as a partridge in a pear tree. . . .

Our commercially oriented American society has little room for this kind of delightful, fanciful lingering over a season. Christmas comes to a screeching halt for us the day after. The only vestiges of merriment are found in the after-Christmas sales, where opportunistic shoppers can be found rummaging through bins of marked down merchandise that only a few days before radiated the possibility of being the answer to someone’s Christmas gift wish. The frenzy of holiday partying subsides, and Americans begin to look with grim determination toward the fashioning of New Year’s resolutions to lose those accumulated pounds, kick that pernicious habit, or do something better.

That the season is over, in the secular public arena, is obvious from the fact that store decorations quickly disappear and the spate of holiday specials broadcast on television are suddenly eclipsed by reruns of old movies and last year’s serials. Even in the domestic realm, the vestiges of the season vanish. I am always startled to see how many upended Christmas trees, tinsel clinging to their stiff, twisted branches, top the piles of debris set out on the sidewalks for the city sanitary engineers to take away on December twenty-sixth.

I personally often suffer a mild sort of postpartum depression the day after the Coming itself. All the anticipation of waiting and the heightened experience of the birth day itself are now memories, and we are left with the miracle in our arms and the overwhelming sensation that we have only just been initiated into the truth of it: that we are called to nurture and raise to maturity what has been given. We become aware that we must live, as well as anticipate, the Coming.

Most churches stubbornly resist the cultural amnesia that pervades the atmosphere and keep reminding us, through the proclamation of the word, the images of the Christmas crib, and the melodies of the songs of the season, that Christmas is still very much with us. And many homes stay decorated with signs of the wondrous birth. I have never been able to take our tree down until after Epiphany, even when brittle needles litter the floor, and the presents that blossomed under it have long since been put away. For the days following the Feast of the Nativity are rich in insight and wisdom. They are the days when we contemplate the Christ given to us, the days when the great task of living into the reality of our spiritual maternity is ours to ponder. They are, in some sense, not unlike the first days home after the trip to the hospital, or the time after the midwife or the last helpful female relative leaves you, at last, on your own. You are faced with both the wonderful, frustrating, impenetrable joy and the anxiety-filled responsibility of attending to new life.

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More Nativity Paintings from around the World

Four years ago on Christmas Day I posted a selection of nativity paintings originating mainly in non-Western cultures. Each year since then that post has ranked as one of the five most-read posts on this site, with over twelve thousand views to date. So I’ve decided to do a part 2.

My friend Scott Rayl shared a quote with me this week by S. D. Gordon: “Jesus was God spelling Himself out in language humanity could understand.” What a succinct summary of the Incarnation!

Today we celebrate the transcendent God made immanent, accessible. We celebrate his new name: Emmanuel, God-with-us. The artists here can aid us in that celebration.


Australia (Aboriginal):

Aboriginal nativity

Mawalan Marika (Rirratjingu/Australian, 1908-1967), Nativity, ca. 1960. Natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark, 109.5 x 33.8 cm.

First Nations of Canada:

Nativity by Jackson Beardy

Jackson Beardy (Oji-Cree, 1944-1984), The Nativity, 1975. Acrylic on canvas, 121.1 x 172.1 cm.


Nazareth by John Giuliani

Father John Battista Giuliani (Italian American, 1932-), Nazareth. Oil on canvas, 24 x 24 in.


Nicaraguan nativity

Nativity mural at Batahola Norte Community Center, Managua, Nicaragua.


Nativity by Angelo da Fonseca

Angelo da Fonseca (Indian, 1902-1967), Nativity, 1954.


Nativity by Sawai Chinnawong

Sawai Chinnawong (Thai, 1959-), Nativity, 2002. Oil on canvas.


Nativity by Lu Lan

Lu Lan, Nativity, 1994.


Japanese Nativity

Hiroshi Tabata (Japanese), Nativity, 1998.


Korean Nativity

Kim Hueng Jong (Korean, 1928-), Christmas Scene.


Nativity by Le Van Dai

Le Van Dai (Vietnamese), Nativity, 1980s. Watercolor on paper.


Nativity by Federico Dominguez

Federico Dominguez (Filipino, 1953-), from the “Yang ya Utaw si Manggob” (When Manggob Was Born) series. Gouache on Bristol board, 12 x 12 in. Collection of Mike Luz.


Nativity by Gde Sukana Kariana

Gde Sukana Kariana (Indonesian, 1974-), Nativity, 2011. Oil on canvas, 50 x 70 cm.


Yoruba Nativity

Father Kevin Carroll (born Britain, active Nigeria, 1920-1993), Yoruba Nativity, 1948. Oil on canvas, 24 x 36 in.


Ethiopian Nativity

Contemporary Ethiopian nativity icon.


Nativity by Elimo Njau

Elimo Njau (born Tanzania, active Kenya, 1932-), Nativity, 1959. Fresco, 12 x 15 ft. St. James’ Anglican Cathedral, Kiharu, Murang’a, Kenya.


Tanzanian Nativity

Tanzanian nativity batik.

South Africa:

Nativity by Azaria Mbatha

Azaria Mbatha (South African, 1941-), The Birth of Christ, 1964. Linocut, 30.4 x 54.4 cm. University of Zululand Art Gallery, KwaDlangezwa, South Africa.

(Many of the Asian artworks in this post were found through the Asian Christian Art Association website. It’s a really rich resource. Check it out!)

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Oh, What a Wonderful Child!

“Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child” is a Christmas gospel song, likely of African American origin (see Dean McIntyre’s hymn study for more information). It gained popularity in 1994, when Mariah Carey sang it on her Merry Christmas album.

The video below features a duet performance by Kelly Clarkson and Fantasia Barrino for the 2004 American Idol Christmas special, filmed in Pasadena, California.


The “largeness” of that performance, I think, really expresses the celebration aspect of Christmas. But if you prefer your music more pared down, you might like Pageant Music’s a capella version “Jesus,” from their 2007 album Word>>>Flesh.

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The Two Genealogies of Jesus, the Curse of Jeconiah, and the Royal Line of David

Several passages in the Hebrew Bible (which Christians refer to as the Old Testament) prophesy that David’s throne will be established forever: 2 Samuel 7:12–16; Psalm 89:3–4, 132:11; Isaiah 16:5; and Jeremiah 33:17. Jews, therefore, have taken that to mean that the messiah, the future deliverer of Israel, will be descended from David. Christians interpret these prophecies as having been fulfilled in the person of Jesus, to whom they attach the title Christ (Gr.; Heb. Messiah), the “anointed one” of God.

Christians also make the unique claim that Jesus was born of a virgin, per the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 (which Jews say Christians have misunderstood, the Hebrew word almah not necessarily referring to a person who has not had sexual intercourse).

The Christian confession of these two truths—that Jesus is the messiah in the line of David who God promised to Israel, and that he was conceived by a virgin—creates some complications of ancestry and inheritance.

How does one reconcile the two very different genealogies of Jesus given by Matthew and Luke?

The Bible contains two different genealogical records for Jesus: one in Matthew (1:1–17), the other in Luke (3:23–38).

Matthew, whose purpose is to present Jesus as king of the Jews, starts with Abraham, the father of the Hebrew nation, and traces the line of descent through the royal line of David all the way down to Jesus. He skips several generations, though, omitting the names of some of the wicked kings of Judah.

Luke, in backward fashion, starts with Jesus and moves all the way back to Adam, showing that Jesus is the fulfillment of the hopes of all people.

The problem is, the two lists don’t match. Not even close. Well, they match up until David’s name, then they diverge, with Matthew tracing a line of descent through David’s son Solomon, and Luke tracing a line of descent through David’s son Nathan. They come together again at Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, but then they diverge again until finally arriving at Joseph.

Biblical scholars have developed various theories to account for such differences. I’ll summarize the two most common ones.

OPTION 1: Matthew’s genealogy goes through Joseph’s biological father, whereas Luke’s goes through Joseph’s legal father by levirate marriage.   Continue reading

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Jesus as the Root/Shoot/Branch of Jesse

The Tree of Jesse—a representation of Jesus’s genealogy in the form of a tree—was a popular subject in medieval Christian art. Its name derives from the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 11:1 and 10: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. . . . In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.”

Paul paraphrases this passage in Romans 15, linking it explicitly to Christ: “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. . . . Isaiah says, ‘The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope’” (vv. 8–9a, 12). Here Paul drives home the plural peoples and nations that Isaiah uses: the messiah has come not just for the Jews but for the whole world.

Tree of Jesse stained glass

The upper section of the 12th-century Jesse Tree window at Chartres Cathedral in France showing Jesus at the apex and Mary below him.

Tree of Jesse illumination

Tree of Jesse with the Madonna and Child (Cod. St. Peter perg. 139, Blatt 7v), from the Scherenberg Psalter, ca. 1260. Held at the Badische Landesbibliothek (Baden State Library), Karlsruhe, Germany.

Tree of Jesse engraving

Jan Wierix (Flemish, 1544–1625), Tree of Jesse, 1573. Engraving [MH 223] after Peter van der Borcht (1530–1613). Published in Antwerp by Christoph Plantin.

Tree of Jesse icon

Russian icon of the Tree of Jesse, 17th century.

Unlike the schematic family trees with which we are familiar, which place the first ancestor at the top and the present generation at the bottom, the Tree of Jesse is read from bottom to top, so as to give Jesus top billing. The figures depicted underneath him, taken from Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies, vary, but because the Tree’s main purpose is to map the messianic line, most depictions at least include David and Solomon, two of the few godly kings of Israel. Taken altogether the Tree represents a dynasty whose rule has been established eternally in Christ. As God promised David,

And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever. (2 Samuel 7:16)

Jesus is the one who has fulfilled this promise, which the angel Gabriel emphasized to Mary during his annunciation visit:

The Lord God will give to him [Jesus] the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:32b–33)

The Tree of Jesse is not to be confused with the Tree of Life, another botanical metaphor used elsewhere in scripture to stand for Christ himself. Though the analogies are certainly related, their iconography is different: the Tree of Life usually has the crucified Christ as its focal point and oftentimes a river flowing from its base (based on Revelation 22:1–4), whereas the Tree of Jesse, in addition to having a much larger cast of characters, features Jesus as a babe in arms or enthroned, and the trunk is usually growing out of Jesse’s side. Both trees speak of the salvation wrought by Christ, but one via the ultimate act of atonement, and the other via the Incarnation, with an emphasis on the long period of waiting Israel had to endure.

The root/shoot/branch imagery of Isaiah raises several questions for me.

Why is Jesus called the root of Jesse? Isn’t Jesse the root of Jesus?   Continue reading

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A new song on the Beatitudes

The Beatitudes are a catalog of blessings that form the introductory portion of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. Disappointed by the lack of musical adaptations of this important Gospel text, some musicians at Hope College in Holland, Michigan—whose students have been studying the Beatitudes this semester—decided to write their own. The result is an EP of four songs, released last week under the moniker Hope College Worship. Among them is “You Are Blessed,” cowritten (with Naaman Wood) and sung by Bruce Benedict.


The collaborators on this project have said that as they’ve followed the news cycle this fall the Beatitudes have been for them a much-needed tool for gospel reorientation, helping them see that God’s grace is most especially available to those who are poor and weak, those who lament and mourn, those who are meek and mild, those who are starved for right, those who are merciful, those who are pure in heart, those who are filled with peace, those who are pierced for good, and (in a timely addition to the source text) to the stranger, the refugee.

“You Are Blessed” starts out slow and heavy, driven forward mostly by piano chords. But after the line “God will fill you with his goodness,” the tempo becomes plucky, buoyant, as the mandolin, banjo, double bass, and drums kick in with the “Rejoice” chorus. From timid to confident, sorrowful to exuberant, the song traces for us a common trajectory in the spiritual life, which we don’t conquer once and for all but rather walk again and again, as circumstances bring us back to the front end. The Beatitudes, with their language of lament and promise, help us pray with those who need God-given confidence and exuberance once more.

Beatitude window

Blessed are all those who feel their spiritual need (window 2 of 9), designed and painted by Siegfried Reinhardt and produced by Emil Frei, 1957. Seedy antique glass, 35 x 6 ft. Sanctuary of the Beatitudes, Second Baptist Church, Richmond Heights, Missouri.

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