The Nativity Portal: We Like Sheep

The Nativity scene is very weathered above the 47th Street door to our church, and today it’s hard to tell if the visitors to the Christ Child, are kings or shepherds!

Does it matter?

You might have expected that our “magnificent church” would have identified with the Three Kings, dressed in worldly finery, and offering splendid gifts to honor the Christ Child. And, indeed, the Adoration of the Magi is a traditional theme for doorway sculptures on many elaborate old churches.

Our church seems to have chosen a different route, though. A partial view of our sculpture, visible in several 1940 SFDS school photos, appears to confirm that the central visitor is a child shepherd with a sheep — and this is supported by the phrase around the scene, still readable as “The Word Was Made Flesh” rather than “They Offered Him Gifts…”

Why depict a shepherd?  Pope Francis observes that the arrival of the shepherds marks a critical moment in the story of Christ’s birth, since, after hearing from the angels, “the shepherds become the first to see the most essential thing of all: the gift of salvation. It is the humble and the poor who greet the event of the Incarnation.”

Our doorway sculptures are part of an overall design theme in our church, based on John’s Gospel that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” This doctrine is central to faith: as the BBC concisely explains, “Through the incarnation of Jesus, humans were able to start repairing their damaged relationship with God. This relationship had been imperfect since Adam and Eve disobeyed God. Through Jesus’ incarnation, God began the process of salvation from sin, making it possible for humans to have a full relationship with him and go to Heaven.

How does this appear in artwork? The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art states that “The Incarnation, i.e. God becoming man in the person of Christ, is…symbolized, either as the Annunciation (at Mary’s words ‘Let it be with me according to your word’), or as the Nativity.” So the Nativity depiction above the 47th street door represents the witness to God becoming human. On the front of the building, the Annunciation scene – another Incarnation –is shown above the left or “choir” door. The theme continues above the center door, with the Christ child shown standing with arms outstretched in the same pose as Christ on the crucifix above the altar inside – foreshadowing his future sacrifice. And on the right, the crucified Jesus is mourned by his mother – a human moment – with an inscription reminding that “Christ died for us” – emphasizing that God became human to save us.

The same theme is echoed inside, with the three Life of Christ windows on the parking lot side of the church. Like the first door on the front of our church, the first window shows the Annunciation. The middle window is another Nativity scene with humble shepherds as the human witnesses to the Incarnation. The third window shows young Jesus building a cross with his Dad – a family moment, parallel to the scene of his mother taking him down from the cross on the front of the church. Below all three windows are different artistic interpretations of double crosses — symbols of the dual nature of Christ, both human and divine.

Why are the outdoor scenes above the church doors important? The entryway, or “Portal,” frames the experience. Those who pass through the front doors into the church are reminded of the power of prayer and instructed to be aware that Christ died for our sins. At the side door, we are advised to approach with humility. If that “portal” includes a child shepherd, then the meaning is even more pointed, since Jesus said “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” And the sheep in the scene remind us that we are God’s flock, and he is both our shepherd and the sacrificial “Lamb of God.”

St. Francis de Sales School Sixth Grade, 1940
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