The Magi and the Manger: Imaging Christmas in Ancient Art and Ritual

The story of the birth of Jesus Christ is familiar, both from the biblical narratives and from iconography that has become ubiquitous in church decoration and widely circulated on Christmas cards: a mother and father adoring their new-born child, an ox and an ass leaning over the child, a star hovering above this scene, angels, shepherds with their sheep in a field, and luxuriously clad “wise” men or kings approaching the child with gifts.

All these elements are included by the Venetian artist Jacopo Tintoretto in a painting which started in his workshop in the late 1550s, and for much of its life hung above the altar of a church in Northern Italy (Fig. 1). In addition, Tintoretto imagines other figures at the scene. With Mary and Joseph at the manger, he includes a second pair of human figures, perhaps the parents of the Virgin: Anna and Joachim. The artist also inserts less traditional animals in the foreground: a chicken and a rabbit, and a dog curled at the foot of the manger.


Fig. 1. Jacopo Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti), The Nativity, Italian, late 1550s (reworked, 1570s), oil on canvas, 155.6 x 358.1 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: gift of Quincy Shaw, accession number 46.1430. Photograph © 2016 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Yet the rich details of the scene that Tintoretto depicts, many of which are now well known in popular renditions, were not present in the first depictions of the Nativity. Even the elements derived directly from the gospel narratives of Matthew and Luke were slow to appear in visual renderings. Between those early scriptural accounts and the formation of even a basic manger scene lie some centuries during which Christian devotion and depiction developed.

So too a ritual observance of Christmas in the liturgical life of the Church does not belong to the earliest years of the Christian movement, but took until the fourth century to appear clearly. The emergence of Christmas as we know it, nativity scene and festivity and all, required its own long historic Advent wait.

Infancy Narratives

The Gospel that is usually considered oldest, that of Mark, has no reference to the birth of Jesus. Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels, both making use of Mark’s version, add stories of the birth of Jesus that have points of contact but also differ significantly in the details. While the familiar shepherds, angel choirs, and the manger come from Luke, Matthew provides the Magi and the guiding star. Matthew’s angelic messenger visits Joseph. Luke’s more famously comes to Mary. What is perhaps the last-written of the canonical Gospels, that of John, has a more abstract or conceptual Incarnation account, wherein the eternal Word becomes flesh.

By the time we can point to material evidence in early Christian art, both narratives were well known, but the features that caught the attention and interest of artisans and their sponsors were not drawn evenly from across this set of stories.

Beginnings: Third Century

There is no surviving evidence to suggest that Christians used art to express the central tenets of their faith before around 200 CE. During the third century, however, they did begin to experiment with visual images, decorating their tombs, churches, as well as household objects and personal items, with pictorial decoration. Stories from the Old and New Testaments served as important sources of inspiration in this process.

Christians selected particular subjects for illustration with evident care; and it may be surprising to us that, judging from the third-century images that survive, they were not initially very interested in Luke’s manger scene. They were more inclined to Matthew’s account, with its visit of the Magi. These mysterious Gentiles to whom Christ was revealed were frequently portrayed in art by the middle of the third century, and according to a standard iconographic pattern: following the unusual star, they were shown bearing their gifts and moving in rhythmic procession towards Mary, who is shown seated and ready to receive the exotic visitors, with the child on her lap.

The earliest surviving versions of the scene are found in funerary settings, on the walls of Roman catacombs or on marble sarcophagi. In one of the oldest Christian cemeteries, the Catacomb of Priscilla, a very early depiction is found prominently displayed above an arch, with the procession cleverly following the curve of the architectural feature (Fig. 2). Dating from the late third or early fourth century, the painting attests that the Magi were now understood to be three in number; although Matthew had not counted them, three gifts for the Child are mentioned: gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Magi dominate this scene, their importance stressed not only by the fact that they occupy the larger part of a composition as a whole but in that they are its central axis: the viewer’s eye is drawn upward, directly to the leading figures in the procession, who occupy the space at the apex of the arch. The emphasis is on their movement—the active seeking of God in his incarnate Son.

Fig. 2. Adoration of the Magi. Wall painting from the Capella Graeca, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome. Late third or early fourth century CE. (Image no longer available)

A marble sarcophagus fragment excavated from the cemetery of Saint Agnes in Rome gives even greater solemnity and prominence to the procession with the addition of three camels and the star, to which the first Magus dramatically points (Fig. 3). They approach the seated Virgin while Jesus, depicted as a small child, leans forward and stretches out his hands to grasp the first of the three gifts.


Fig. 3. Adoration of the Magi. Fragment from a Roman sarcophagus, fourth century. From the cemetery of Saint Agnes, Rome. Vatican Museums, Museo Pio Cristiano, inv. 31459.

In such scenes, the viewer is not just witness to the solemn act of seeking and discovery, but a participant. The ancient Christian may have recognized in these gift-bearers the posture and gestures given in Roman art to figures who offer or exchange gifts. In depictions of ancient Greek and Roman gift-giving practices, the act and choice of gift were important in furnishing information about both giver and recipient; and the postures adopted in Roman imperial ceremony for the worship of an Emperor or other ruler seem to provide a pictorial model for the representation of the Magi.[1] Identifying with or recognizing such an outward act of homage, the viewer could enter into the Nativity story through the wise visitors, worshipping God manifest on earth in the Child.

The Magi’s gift-giving recalled the presentation of tributes and gifts by kings from distant shores in Psalm 72:10, and by the third century, Tertullian (Against Marcion 3.13) writes “The East considers the Magi almost as Kings.” By the sixth century the Magi had been given the names Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar.[2] They are so named in a sixth-century mosaic from Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, where they are depicted as sumptuously dressed Eastern figures leading a long procession of female martyrs towards Mary and Jesus. The influence of imperial iconography is striking. Against a shimmering gold background, the enthroned Mother and Child now occupy more space than the Magi, and are the pictorial focus. Mary, luxuriously robed and majestically seated on a gem-studded throne, with flowering plants at her feet, is portrayed as the Mother of God. Depicted in strict frontality, and flanked by her court of four angelic attendants, she ceremoniously presents the child, both to the Magi and the viewer, as God incarnate (Fig. 4).[3]


Fig. 4. Adoration of the Magi. Detail from the mosaic decoration of the nave (north side), Church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna. Photo: Arthur Urbano, with kind permission. Sixth century.

This shift in focus onto the Christ child had begun in the fourth century when the Lukan crib or manger was represented for the first time. The child was shown lying alone in the manger, without parents or human visitors, accompanied only by the ox and ass. A marble relief, carved in the late fourth or early fifth century, illustrates this vision (Fig. 5). With attention resting exclusively on Jesus, who is now placed at the centre of the composition, the iconography highlights the birth of God’s Son in human form on earth, surrounded by nature.


Fig 5. Birth of Jesus. Marble relief, Naxos, late fourth or early fifth century. Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens (BXM 000312). Image in the Public Domain.

The ceremonial scene lavishly illustrated in mosaic in Ravenna for a congregation to witness and celebrate combines the two narratives and two iconographic traditions, a product of both artistic and ritual developments in the celebration of the birth.

The Feast of Christmas

The liturgical celebration of the Incarnation— the feast of Christmas—first comes into view in the fourth century.[4] The Nativity is initially celebrated on two different dates, December 25 (in the Western Mediterranean) and January 6th (in the East).

Interest in the date of Jesus’s birth is however much older than the feast itself. Even around 200 CE, the Carthaginian writer Tertullian and his Alexandrian contemporary Clement both attest to calendrical speculations about the same two dates that would appear as those Nativity feasts somewhat later.

Tertullian is one early source that links Jesus’s death at Passover with the date of March 25th; this would of course later become the Feast of the Annunciation, a commemoration of Jesus’s conception. Yet Tertullian and other Christian writers of this period are suspicious of celebrating anyone’s birthday. Scholars such as Louis Duchesne in the nineteenth century and Thomas Talley in the twentieth argued that such alignment of days was viewed as providential in Jewish and early Christian thought; Jesus’s conception and his death could have been expected to take place on the same day.[5]

Jesus’s death was of course being commemorated from a very early point, along with his Resurrection, as Christians continued and adapted celebration of the feast of Passover. Second in order of significance and clarity for the Christians after this Pascha was not Christmas or other dates related to Jesus’s life, but holidays commemorating the martyrs—“other Christs” whose experiences of suffering and triumph echoed the Paschal feast. These anniversaries of death were the real “birthdays” of those heroes, but they would in time be joined by observance of a more literal birthday.

The first explicit evidence for a Christmas observance associates it, surprisingly, with those martyr feasts. The Philocalian Calendar of 354 leads off its list of those festivals with the feast of the Nativity. The Christmas observance on December 25 was clearly established by this point, and may have been around earlier in the third century, kept in western regions such as Italy and in Roman Africa. The January 6 date was being observed at a similar point in Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt.

Since the Middle Ages there has been speculation about the proximity of the two early Christmas dates to pre-Christian solstice festivals. The Roman Saturnalia were just a few days before December 25th, and the Emperor Aurelian instituted a feast of Sol Invictus (the unconquered Sun) on that same day. Yet the evidence of those earlier calculations makes these hypotheses less convincing. It is nevertheless clear that Christian preachers, and artists, made use of the proximity of the solstice as a source of reflection about the Nativity and Incarnation, a cosmic dawn in the darkness of sin.

Different local churches may have focused on either the Lukan or Matthean accounts, or both, in their liturgies and preaching of Christmas—on either date—to begin with, but evidence is limited. The early popularity of the Magi in art and the absence of the manger need not mean that the Matthew story was typically preferred to Luke’s at the earliest point for liturgical reading. It could merely reflect the theological and iconographic suitability of a visual language that evoked both stories, as well as John’s less historical account. So in Rome, where the Magi are depicted in the great stational Church of Santa Maria Maggiore (Fig. 6) without the Lukan shepherds, the biblical texts for Christmas seem nevertheless to have favored John and Luke.[6]


Fig. 6. Adoration of the Magi. Detail from the mosaic decoration of the triumphal arch, Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, ca. 435. Photo: Arthur Urbano, with kind permission.

When in the later fourth century efforts were made to harmonize the two different dates, December 25 and January 6, the liturgical use of the narratives changed. The solution that became widely accepted is the one familiar even now: the Western date was typically accepted as the Nativity feast as such; the later Eastern date became associated with the visit of the Magi, as Epiphany, and also celebrated other manifestations of Jesus’s glory, such as his baptism.

After this, evidence for the use of readings at the Christmas liturgy becomes clearer, with the Luke and John texts typically preferred at Christmas, and Matthew reserved for the Epiphany. With this removal of the Magi by a few days, the way was also clearer for the more developed iconography of the manger scene that we know. In this new vision of the Nativity, the viewer could concentrate on the birth of the Son of God in human form, on earth; and as confidence in the representation of this vision increased, a more detailed image emerged, one more firmly rooted in the gospel narrative, of which Tintoretto was to be an inheritor.

felicity_harley-mcgowan_webFelicity Harley-McGowan is a specialist in early-Christian and medieval art. Her work centers on the origins and development of Christian iconography within the visual culture of Roman late antiquity, and extends to the “survival” of the Classical tradition from late antiquity through to the Italian Renaissance. Before coming to Yale, she was the Gerry Higgins Lecturer in Medieval Art History at the University of Melbourne, where she taught across the fields of Roman, Byzantine, medieval and Renaissance art history, as well as art theory and historiography. She is currently preparing a monograph on the earliest images of crucifixion and co-editing (with Henry Maguire) a volume on the life and scholarship of Ernst Kitzinger.

andrew-mcgowan-webAndrew McGowan is Dean of Berkeley Divinity School. An Anglican priest and historian, his scholarly work focuses on the life of early Christian communities, and on aspects of contemporary Anglicanism. Professor McGowan’s project of re-describing early eucharistic practice in relation to ancient food and meals is found in Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian Ritual Meals (Oxford, 1999). His most recent book, Ancient Christian Worship (Baker Academic, 2014) seeks to describe discursive and ritual practice in the ancient Church, including use of music and speech, as well as sacramental ritual, and to acknowledge the diversity of early Christian belief and practice. He is currently working on how early Christian and other ancient Mediterranean groups used, changed, and created notions of sacrifice. Also editor of the Journal of Anglican Studies, he blogs at Saint Ronan Street Diary ( and is on Twitter as @BerkeleyDean and @Praxeas.


[1] André Grabar, Christian Iconography: A Study of its Origins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), 44–45. For an alternate view, see Robin M. Jensen, “Allusions to Imperial Rituals in Fourth-Century Christian Art,” in Lee Jefferson and Robin M. Jensen (eds), The Art of Empire: Christian Art in its Imperial Context (Fortress Press, 2015), 15–24.

[2] For the earliest literary reference (the Excerpta Latina Barbari): Bruce Metzger, “Names for the Nameless in the New Testament,” New Testament Studies: Philological, Versional, and Patristic (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1980), 8081.

[3] On the symbolism of the three Magi in this pictorial context, Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis, Ravenna in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 169171. The names may be a later addition to the mosaic.

[4] See further Susan K. Roll, Toward the Origins of Christmas, Liturgia condenda 5 (Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1995).

[5] Thomas J. Talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year, 2nd ed. (Collegeville, MN.: Liturgical Press, 1986).

[6] Lester Ruth, “The Early Roman Christmas Gospel: Magi, Manger, or Verbum Factum?,” Stud. Liturg. 24, no. 2 (1994): 214–21. For the iconography of the scene at Santa Maria Maggiore, and the influence of imperial imagery: Maria Lidova, “The Imperial Theotokos: Revealing the Concept of Early Christian Imagery in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome,” Convivium II/2 (2015), 60–81.


This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Harley, Felicity and McGowan, Andrew. (2016) “The Magi and the Manger: Imaging Christmas in Ancient Art and Ritual,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 3: No. 1, Article 2. Available at:

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Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna




Adoration of the Magi. Details from the mosaic decoration of the nave (north side), Church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna. Photos: Arthur Urbano, with kind permission. Sixth century.

urbano-1Arthur P. Urbano, Jr. teaches at Providence College and publishes in the area of Early Christianity and Patristics. His research interests focus on the Christian reception and transformation of classical culture in late antiquity, particularly in the areas of philosophy, literature, and art. 

Music and Divine Encounter in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio


Christmas and music seem to belong together. Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, and the Christmas sections from Handel’s Messiah are an integral part of the public and private soundscapes between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. They belong to the feast like roasted chestnuts and peppermint sticks. The soothing sound of the Baroque pastoral and the festive splendor of concerto-movements from the first half of the eighteenth century seem to capture the Christmas spirit and are often appreciated even without a deeper knowledge of classical music. What is more, Christmas is probably the only Christian feast that has developed its own unmistakable musical idiom: triple meter, simple texture, slow harmonic rhythm, organ points—these are not only the ingredients for a musical pastoral but they likewise characterize a wide array of popular Christmas songs, from “In dulci jubilo” to “Silent Night.”

Even in a society like ours, where communal singing has lost most of its former significance, Christmas carols still count among the best-known songs with religious texts. This phenomenon is due in part to cultural conventions; but throughout history, Christmas has also inspired musical imagination more than any other Christian feast. Paintings of the Nativity in the Renaissance and the Baroque frequently feature angels with instruments (often string instruments such as viola da gambas or violins), and the shepherds are often depicted bringing their flutes and reed instruments to the manger to play their simple tunes for the newborn Christ.[1]

When Johann Sebastian Bach (1685­–1750) composed his Christmas Oratorio for the Christmas season 1734/35, he tackled a very ambitious project. The liturgy in his Leipzig churches did not provide a place to perform a piece of more than two hours in length. Bach therefore decided to split the oratorio into six separate parts, each of them to be performed before the sermon in morning services of one of the two major churches in Leipzig.[2] The first three parts were performed on the first, second, and third days of Christmas (Dec. 25–27), Part IV on New Year’s Day, Part V on the Sunday after New Year’s, and the last part on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1735. The text for the oratorio features the familiar Christmas narrative from Lk. 2, the story of the Three Wise Men from Mt. 2, as well as free poetry and hymns.


With this composition Bach not only tapped into a long history of music for the celebration of the birth of Christ, he also created a celebration of music itself and of music as a mode of human and divine encounter. Music as a theme features prominently in the second part of the oratorio, performed on December 26, 1734 in the St. Thomas Church. The scriptural basis for the second part is the encounter of the shepherds with the angels on the fields before Bethlehem (Lk. 2:814), culminating in the angelic song “Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe” (May honor be to God on high).[3] The festive setting of the praise of the angels is the climax of Part II, only followed by a short recitative for bass and a final chorale stanza.

Already in the opening movement for Part II, however, Bach celebrates the encounter between the angels and the shepherds, albeit without words, only with the use of music. An instrumental sinfonia depicts the bucolic scene in the fields close to Bethlehem. Bach plays with a common stereotype of shepherds’ music, the pastorale: lilting motives in triple meter over a simple, often static, bass. However, the opening sinfonia is more than just a musical genre painting, it describes an encounter. Bach uses the string instruments of the orchestra (here doubled by the flutes) to depict the arrival of the angels. His listeners would have been familiar with paintings that associated the sound of the strings with the divine messengers. The shepherds, on the other hand, are represented by the nasal sound of the oboes—again a typical feature in Baroque iconography.[4] At the beginning of his sinfonia, Bach juxtaposes these two sonic groups: the strings begin, then they are interrupted by the oboes, then the strings take the lead again, and so forth. Each group also has its unique musical ideas. The angels play an elegantly flowing siciliano motive, while the shepherds interject with a simpler, more rustic theme. Gradually, however, the oboes adopt musical ideas from the strings, and in the final moments of the sinfonia, the strings and oboes play the same motive. In the last two measures, the strings even drop out and the oboes of the shepherds play the angelic motive all by themselves.[5] Symbolically speaking, the angels serve as a model for the music of the shepherds. Bach’s skillful juxtaposition and assimilation of musical ideas and musical topoi correlates with Martin Luther’s interpretation of the angelic choir in Lk. 2. In his Hauspostille the Reformer states that through the birth of Christ, humans become co-citizens with the angels: “But he is not only our Lord, but he is also the Lord of the angels; and together with the angels we are members of the Lord’s domestic community. While we had been servants of the devil before, now the Child has honored us by elevating us to the citizenry of the angels. They are now our best friends. . . .”[6] A theological treatise from 1746 formulates this synthesis thus: “In Christo und durch Christum stimmen himmel und erde, Gott, Engel und menschen wieder zusammen.”[7] (In Christ and through Christ heaven and earth, God, angel, and men sound together). Bach’s sinfonia enacts this synthesis musically by leading the two musical choirs, which are distinct in motive and color, to a sonic synthesis.

Bach envisions the angels and the shepherds as two “choirs,” two musical ensembles, which engage in a dialogue. This idea also shapes the following movements of Part II of the oratorio. After the announcement of Jesus’s birth, the text of the following recitative even calls the shepherds a “choir”: “What God has pledged to Abraham, he now lets be shown to the chorus of shepherds as fulfilled” (no. 14).

The angel then urges the shepherds to go to the manger and to see “the miracle” that has taken place. But again, the shepherds do not only appear as passive bystanders but the angel also encourages them to sing a lullaby for the newborn Child: “Then sing for him by his cradle—in a sweet tone and with united choir—this lullaby” (no. 18).[8]

While the biblical narrative expects the angels to sing their angelic Gloria, nowhere do we read in the Gospel of Luke that the shepherds made music as well. However, for Bach and his anonymous librettist there is no question but that the encounter would have a musical component. If the angels are singing, the shepherds have to be imagined as following their example by singing, as well.

The lullaby that follows is a beautiful alto aria, which meditates on the intimate relationship between the believer and Jesus: “Sleep, my most beloved, enjoy your rest . . . refresh your breast, feel the delight” (no. 19). The music of the alto aria is soothing, with a lilting rhythm. It fits the stereotype of a lullaby.

The shepherds encounter the message of Jesus’s birth in music and their first response is music. The encounter between the human and divine spheres takes place in sound. The theological synthesis is also musical synthesis. Harmony between God and man is represented by musical harmony.


After the alto lullaby, the Evangelist announces the arrival of the heavenly hosts, and the angels sing their “May honor be to God on high,” the angelic Gloria. Bach divides the text of the heavenly chorus into three sections: the praise of God on high, the peace on earth, and the great pleasure to humankind. As he had already done in the opening sinfonia, Bach establishes a juxtaposition between the divine sphere in the first section and the human sphere in the second section; in the third section, he leads these two spheres to a synthesis by combining musical ideas from the first two sections. Bach essentially follows the same pattern he had already used in the opening sinfonia, now applied to a setting of the central biblical text.

The angelic Gloria is followed by a small recitative, sung by the bass voice, which connects the praise of the angels with the human response. The focus is no longer only on the shepherds; it is wider. It is the call to all mankind to join the choir of angels: “Quite right, you angels: shout and sing. . . . Arise then! We will join with you in song.” The text for the recitative finally spells out what the music had already represented several times, the combination of heavenly and human forces in the musical praise of God.

The second part of the oratorio (like the other parts as well), ends with a setting of a common congregational hymn. Even though the hymn was here to be sung by the choir, hymn settings like this commonly represented the voice of the congregation in Bach’s oratorios. This is the case here as well. In the hymn setting the singers join the angels and praise the newborn Son of God: “We sing to you, amid your host, with all our power . . . that you, O long-desired guest, have now presented yourself” (no. 23). The hymn setting is accompanied by the instruments, and we hear again the musical motives from the opening sinfonia, as well as the intricate juxtaposition of strings (now playing together with the voices) and the nasal sound of the oboes.


Traces of a similar view of music can also be found in other movements of the oratorio, albeit not as concentrated as in Part II. Already the opening movement of the oratorio begins with the praise of God through music: “Shout, exult, arise, praise the days [of Christmas]. . . . Break forth into song, full of shouting and rejoicing” (no. 1). But again, even before the voices of the singers enter, Bach has already displayed the different voices of the orchestra in fanfares of praise: first the drums, then the flutes, followed by the oboes and the trumpets. When the singers finally enter in measure 33, their “Shout, exult, arise” almost feels redundant, because that is exactly what the instruments have already done for quite a while. The opening chorus is a celebration of music as a means of expressing the joy that will later be announced by the angels in the Gloria. The same is true for the opening movement of the third part of the oratorio: “Ruler of heaven, give heed to our babble, let our feeble songs praise you” (no. 24). Music—here the songs and psalms sung in the honor of God—serves as a celebration of the birth of Jesus. Even though the text does not mention it directly, the divine praise from the human chorus is again modeled on the praise sung by the angels. The students of the St. Thomas School who sang the work in 1734/35 would have been familiar with this idea. The laws for the school (Schulordnung), recently revised in 1733, described the musical duties of the pupils by comparing them to a choir of angels: “When they are singing, they shall diligently remember the nature and the duties of the holy angels; this shall teach them that the singing of sacred songs is a glorious duty and how they should behave honorably while singing these songs.”[9]

For Bach and his contemporaries, Christmas music was not only a way to set a sentimental mood, not only the celebration of a “Silent Night” or the sonic memory of jingling bells. It was a means of encounter with God. Earthly music was a reflection of heavenly music; the voices of the human choir emulated the angelic voices. The goal was a sonic and spiritual harmony between heaven and earth.[10] Music was part of how God revealed himself in the Christmas narrative, and it was at the same time a human answer: praise for the coming of Christ but also the expression of love and affection in the lullaby sung for the baby in the manger, “Sleep, my most beloved. . . . Feel the delight.”

picture-37-1465408322Markus Rathey is Professor of Music History at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and the Yale School of Music. He is a leading Bach scholar and currently president of the American Bach Society. His major study of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was published by Oxford University Press in 2016. The book analyzes Bach’s masterwork from a musical, cultural, and theological perspective and sheds new light on Bach’s own compositional process. His other recent book, Bach’s Major Vocal Works, published by Yale University Press, includes a chapter on the Christmas Oratorio that explores the theological and liturgical contexts of the oratorio.


[1] For an excellent overview of music and angels see Meredith J. Gill, Angels and the Order of Heaven in Medieval and Renaissance Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), especially pages 112–134.

[2] Some of the parts were also repeated during the Vespers services; for the liturgical context see Markus Rathey, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio: Music, Theology, Culture (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 120–125.

[3] The translations of the texts from Bach’s oratorio follow the excellent translation by Michael Marissen, Bach’s Oratorios: The Parallel German-English Texts with Annotations (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[4] Cf. Emanuel Winternitz, Musical Instruments and Their Symbolism in Western Art: Studies in Musical Iconology (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979), 132–134.

[5] For a more detailed discussion of this movement see Rathey, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, 197–207.

[6] For the original text see Rathey, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, 206.

[7] Christoph Starke, Synopsis Bibliothecae Exegeticae in Novum Testamentum: Kurzgefaster Auszug Der gründlichsten und nutzbarsten Auslegungen über alle Bücher Neues Testaments, vol. I, Biel: Heilmann, 1746, col. 1039.

[8] For the function of the lullaby and the emotional understanding of Christmas in Bach’s time see the chapter “From Love Song to Lullaby” in Markus Rathey, Bach’s Major Vocal Works: Music, Drama, Liturgy (New Haven and London: Yale University Press), 2016.

[9] Gesetze der Schule zu S. Thomae (Leipzig:Breitkopf, 1733), 5. For an English translation and remarks on the theological and musicological context of this view of music see Rathey, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, 191.

[10] The idea of heavenly harmony and its sonic realization in earthly music was quite common in Baroque music theory as well as in theology; for a recent study of these concepts see Joyce I. Irvin, Foretastes of Heaven in Lutheran Church Music Tradition: Johann Mattheson and Christoph Raupach on Music in Time and Eternity, (Lanham: Rowman&Littlefield), 2015.


This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0  License.

Recommended Citation: Rathey, Markus. (2016) “Music and Divine Encounter in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 3: No. 1, Article 1. Available at  

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Born in Us Today: The Gospel of Incarnation

Who is Jesus for a small village in Mozambique, the people of Ferguson, a busy pastor, a child awed by candles and music? Christianity is a mosaic through which people are formed by its root wisdom: that the infinite and unknowable ground of creation united itself with humanity in the body of Jesus of Nazareth. As we enter into the joy of Advent, we are invited to contemplate again the beauty of this mystery.

The people of Israel understood divine power to be intimately related to history. But history is pretty ugly, especially for a small conquered nation like Israel. To say that YHWH is the lord of history is to perceive that behind the ravages of time stands an unconquerable vision of justice and compassion. It is through this lens that the basic ideas of the Incarnation began to unfold.

In history, might is right. The most ruthless ruler gains power, and stronger armies overwhelm weaker ones. Israel saw its dreams and kings defeated. But they had a name for something that testified on their behalf; a name for justice that was not undone even as the poor were left to hunger for food and dignity, a compassion that testified on behalf of orphans and aliens. The prophets acknowledged the external devastation of war and the internal devastation of expediency and yet they prophesied hope. To trample the poor and then conduct holy rites is to God an abomination, but even this word is hopeful because it recognizes that things do not have to be this way. Injustice does not express who Israel really is. God calls Israel back to its true identity in ever-renewed invitations to participate in the divine compassion.

Seek justice

Rescue the oppressed

Defend the orphan

Plead for the widow. . . .

Zion will be redeemed by justice. (Isaiah 1:17, 27)

Isaiah witnessed the suffering of the socially vulnerable and the disasters of war and yet reminds Israel of a promise: however far we stray from the divine goodness, it will relentlessly call us back.

The prophets do not foretell but unveil. They reveal God’s anguish in the face of injustice. The degradation of other human beings that seems casual to us is unbearable to God. The purpose of prophecy is “to conquer callousness, to change the inner [human] as well as to revolutionize history.”[1] This vision arises from “fellowship with the feelings of God, a sympathy with the divine pathos.”[2] The prophetic unveiling speaks the truth about social evil and hypocrisy, especially when these wear the cloak of religion. The prophets unmask our self-deceptions. But the prophets also unveil the deeper intention of divine goodness: that our injustices will always be held in the divine compassion. Israel’s faith is rooted in depictions of God’s unceasing labor on behalf of humanity. The divine Mother leads Israel and refuses to give it up: “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness and bands of love…  How can I give you up, Ephraim?. . . My compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger. . . for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” (Hosea 11:3–4, 8–9).

The Hebrew prophets lay out the pattern that is picked up in the Christian writings, even as they mingle with the wisdom of Gentiles and become “a new song.”

Something beautiful happened; and even without understanding it, we joyously celebrate it every year as the sky grows dark and the nights long. In some mysterious way, the infinite divine is caught in a human body, invisible light made visible. The gospels record how Jesus was remembered by different communities in different parts of the Roman Empire—a story too precious to be contained by one narrative. The story of Incarnation describes an upside-down world, and even now it is difficult to bear its intensity. In the parables, everyone acts crazy: a father rewards the son whose whoring and gambling loses half of his wealth; an outsider helps someone left for dead by the side of the road when religious leaders turn away. A crazy woman is one of Jesus’s close companions and the disciple chosen by him to first preach the gospel of Resurrection. We are called to recognize Christ in the faces of the hungry, sick, and imprisoned. This is a world that did not make sense two thousand years ago, and it does not make sense now. And yet these are the stories told to reveal who God is.

Perhaps the most shocking element of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the story that we are celebrating right now: the story of his birth. Because it is so tangled up with songs blared from store loudspeakers bidding us to rock around the Christmas tree, we may overlook that this is the heart of the doctrine of the Incarnation. In this story, the Most High, who laid the foundation of the earth and shut in the sea with doors (Job 38–41), appears as a tiny baby. The “breath of the power of God” (Wisdom 7:25) enters our world through the body of an unwed peasant girl to lie in animals’ straw in a barn at the outskirts of a tiny village in an occupied territory. Herod’s act of terror immediately forces his family to flee their precarious shelter. These are the root symbols of what God-with-us looks like.

To make clear the contrast between the kind of power embodied in Jesus Christ and that of Rome, the early Christians transposed the language of the cult of the emperor and applied it to Christ.[3] His kingdom is a paradoxical counterpoint to Caesar’s empire: beggars, peasants, married and unmarried women, unemployed, day laborers, and tax collectors are its dignitaries. The king is a wanderer whose tattered robes bring healing. He is praised not by court poets and sycophants but by shepherds and angels.

This counter-narrative is not obviously attractive. Watching the news, we see that people prefer leaders who are capable of enforcing their will. It is not obvious why the Christian path would be attractive, since its deity apparently lacked either the desire or the ability to free people from persecution or suffering. But those who were illuminated by this path became intoxicated by the counter-narrative of radical love and compassion that extended fellowship not according to kin or ethnic ties but to humanity itself. Christians no longer believed that social standing or even death itself defined who they were. In these quixotic communities, someone whom society perceived as a slave or an abused wife might be a leader. Christians could be fearless of death as they attended plague victims, brought help to prisoners in Roman mines or faced Rome’s most cruel tortures.[4]

In the modern period, Christians emphasize belief as the primary act of piety. But early Christians understood the significance of the Incarnation differently: allegiance must either be to the gospel of Jesus Christ or to the gospel of Caesar. We have a sense of the meaning of this choice for the gospel of Incarnation in the prison diary of Perpetua, a young Roman mother who was arrested in 203. A witness to her death describes her going into the stadium with milk dripping from her breasts but with a “shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a wife of Christ, putting down everyone’s stare by her own intense gaze.” After she is first stripped and then gored, she is reported to have said to her fellow Christians: “You must all stand fast in the faith and love one another, and do not be weakened by what we have gone through.’”[5] Perpetua’s witness is not simply to a belief that she will go to heaven or that Jesus is lord but to the meaning of the Incarnation: stand fast and love one another. Allegiance to this gospel, even in extremis, was for Perpetua and her fellow prisoners the primary content of faith. Enchanted by this gospel, it was impossible to stomach the cruelty of the Empire’s practices or the emptiness of its theology. Perpetua saw herself so clearly in the gospel that it became impossible to betray herself.

The Incarnation invites us, like Israel and Perpetua, to recognize who we really are. American slaves who sang about having “shoes in that kingdom” were not only consoling themselves with a fantasy of a better future. They sang out their true names.[6] When Jesus asks his disciples “Who do you say I am?” he is also asking “Who do you say you are?” Early Christians said Jesus was the Messiah, Compassion, Light. The Savior awakened sleepers who walked in the darkness of self-forgetfulness. Jesus was the emissary of a God whose name was not Caesar but Love. The desire to cleave to the gospel of Jesus Christ and its vision of absolute love made it impossible to accept the gospel of Caesar. It is a love that requires a sacrifice—not of a dove or goat but of one’s very personhood.

That God is love has become a banal slogan. In the musical version of Oliver Twist, it was painted in gray letters on the wall of the miserable orphanage. But, in the Second Letter of Peter, it makes us “participants in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). The First Letter of John contrasts this gospel with idolatry. “Those who say ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers or sisters are liars. . . . Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4:19, 21). It concludes: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). Anything less than love is idolatry and death.

In this season, we are invited to enter into this joy, but it is difficult to free ourselves from the idols of consumerism, hostility, or callousness. Christians may have little difficulty either ignoring the anguished cries of black America, indulging in demeaning depictions of Hispanic or Muslim neighbors, or remaining implacably indifferent to poverty and hunger. But this is the idolatry of imperial religion and is antithetical to the revelation of the Incarnation.

Yet, in our carols we will again sing out Christianity’s tender and wise theology of Incarnation. We are invited to recognize the contrast between royal indifference and solidarity. “Once in royal David’s city,” with the poor oppressed and lowly lived on earth our Savior holy.[7] Not emperors but mothers exemplify the intimacy between Logos and the world: “In the bleak mid-winter,” seraphim thronged the air, but his mother only . . . worshipped the Beloved with a kiss.[8] This Beloved offers a vision of universalized compassion: “Peace on earth and mercy mild.”[9] In the joy of Christmas hope, we refuse the sorrows bred by callousness and indifference: “No more let sins and sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground.”[10] We can follow a different way: “There’s a star in the east on Christmas morn. Rise up shepherd and follow.”[11] Though “no ear can hear his coming,” when we open our hearts to him, the “the dear Christ enters in.”[12] In this poetry of celebration, Christological creeds and doctrines live in us as intimacy between God and the oppressed, as tenderness between mother and child, as a new way to be in the world because this compassionate love “is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing.”[13]

We may not be called to Perpetua’s sacrifice. But even amidst the obfuscating and exhausting temptations of today’s Imperial powers, perhaps we will rekindle the joy of this crazy, off-kilter vision. The divine in us gives us eyes to see the divine in others and in that seeing, Christ is continually “born in us”—and, through us, reborn to the world.

wendy-farleyWendy Farley is Professor Emeritus of Emory University where she occupied the Chair of Theological Studies for many years. She is Professor of Christian Spirituality at San Francisco Theological Seminary and the author of many books, including Gathering Those Driven Away: A Theology of Incarnation and most recently The Thirst of God: Contemplating God’s Love With Three Women Mystics.



[1] Abraham Heschel, The Prophets: an Introduction, vol. 1 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962), 17

[2] Ibid, 26.

[3] See John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome (San Francisco: Harper, 2007) and Richard A. Horsley, The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context (New York: Crossroad, 1989).

[4] See Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Random House, 2003), chapter 1.

[5] From The Acts of the Christian Marytrs. Texts and translation by Herbert Musurillo, available various places including

[6] See, for example, Cheryl A.Kirk-Duggan, “African-American Spirituals: Confronting and Exorcising Evil through Song,” in Emilie M. Townes, ed., A Troubling in My Soul (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 1996) or James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 2015), chapter 1.

[7]Henry John Gauntlett, “Once in Royal David’s City”

[8] Christina Rossetti, “In the Bleak Mid-winter”

[9] Charles Wesley, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”

[10] Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World”

[11] African American Spiritual: “Rise up, Shepherd, and Follow”

[12] Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

[13] William Chatterton Dix, “What Child is This”


This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Recommended Citation: Farley, Wendy. (2016) “Born in Us Today: the Gospel of Incarnation,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 3: No. 1, Article 3. Available at:  

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