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Food for imagination in Christmas stories and art

  • 12 December 2017


In the ancient world people always told stories about the childhood of famous people. The stories illustrated the direction and qualities of their adult lives, and usually grew with the telling.

So it was with Jesus. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both begin with different stories of his birth that illustrate its significance. Later story tellers adorned them with further details that helped people imagine the scene and to appreciate the meaning of the stories.

Luke's Gospel tells us that Jesus was born in a manger. The cribs add animals. Matthew has Eastern wise men visit Jesus with presents. Later stories give them crowns and make them kings, each with his own name and distinctive traits. Matthew also says simply that Joseph was told to get up and take Jesus to Egypt because Herod was seeking to kill him.

Later stories fill in their journey. Mary and Jesus ride on a donkey, led by a boy. Idols fall from their pedestals as they pass, and at one resting place palm trees bend to provide Jesus with fruit and waters flowed from their roots.

This last story provided rich material for artists to paint the scene and add their own details. The Bruges painter Gerard David depicts Mary in a dazzling blue dress, seated regally on a rock ledge feeding Jesus with a bunch of grapes, while the donkey with ears pricked up rests in the shade of trees and Joseph in the distance knocks fruit from a tree with a stick. Behind them lie a village and fields rising to a wooded ridge. When Caravaggio paints the same scene a century later he has an angel sing to Jesus while Joseph holds the score.

These details don't tell us much about what life was like along the sea road to Egypt, but they do illuminate the deeper meaning of the Christmas stories. They speak of the Son of God coming into our world to join us, so demonstrating how precious and what a great gift our world is.

The added details show us that to God not only large things matter: cities, towns and kings' business for example. Each tree, donkey, shepherd and sheep matter, together with the breathtaking world of reality and art to which they belong.


"These stories speak of the hope of a world cared for and abundant for all ... of a human world in which people work for one another as