Inspiring Generosity

Why the nativity is really a story of generosity

Reconnect to the Christmas story through three works of religious art

By Jessica Brodie

Imagine for a moment what it felt like to walk in Mary’s sandals. She was young and betrothed to Joseph. And then, she was given the incredible news that she, a virgin, would birth the savior long foretold. Yet, she didn’t hesitate. She laid all she had at the feet of God, and agreed. And so began a story of miraculous conception and faithful acceptance of God’s will that led to a humble manger in Bethlehem.

The nativity, the gift of God’s precious son to bring about eternal life for the world, is the story of the most unexpected yet generous love offering imaginable.

Three of the forty artworks from the Thrivent Collection of Religious Art, featured in Inspiring Generosity, relate to the Nativity story. The works of art in the book, with their layered themes of giving, sacrifice, and faith, can serve as a poignant reminder of the real reason for the season: celebrating Jesus, God’s gift to us.

Generosity of Hope

German Painter, Nativity in a Historiated Letter “R,” c. 1520. Illuminated manuscript.
German Painter, Nativity in a Historiated Letter “R,” c. 1520. Illuminated manuscript.

This beautiful hand-painted object is cut out of an illuminated manuscript. “This book was likely used in dark churches, where candlelight would flicker and catch on the areas of gold,” says Joanna Reiling Lindell, director and curator of the Thrivent Collection of Religious Art.

At first glance, it is a classic scene: a blue-clad Mary with Joseph, kneeling before the Christ child as angels sing praises above. “But a closer look,” Lindell points out, “reveals the scene’s real story: one of generosity rooted in hope. Hope is everywhere, from the candle held by Joseph—symbolizing Christ as light of the world—to the lush green patches of grass poking through the crumbling walls around them—symbolizing new life amid worldly ruin.”

It’s this hope-amid-ruin theme that underscores the generosity in Jesus’s birth, a gift so transformative it can only be called amazing grace. God loves us so much that, as the Apostle John declared, Jesus was given to us so we who believe in God would have eternal life (John 3:16). We did nothing to earn this love, but God persisted. As the apostle Paul said in Romans 5:8, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

“Notice the foreheads of Mary and the Christ child,” says Lindell. “They are worn down by centuries of people who touched and kissed their foreheads in devotion and prayer, grateful for the generosity that the scene represents.”

Generosity of Relationship

Guido Reni (Italian, 1575-1642), Madonna and Child in the Round, 1615. Etching.
Guido Reni (Italian, 1575-1642), Madonna and Child in the Round, 1615. Etching.

God’s love for us gives way to another act of generosity that God grants us: a close relationship. We can see this beautiful intimacy in Guido Reni’s etching. We were given a path back to God in the form of Jesus, “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). When we surrender to Christ and walk in faith, we’re no longer a slave to sin but a child of God. It’s a tender, authentic relationship; one rooted in our dependence and need and God’s utter, perfect care.

This piece reflects that care, depicting a tender moment between Mary and the infant Christ. The raw, solemn adoration on her face as she comforts her newborn son captures the obedience and sacrifice we see in her initial willingness to give over her body as a vessel to become the mother of God, but also in her devotion once she has birthed the baby Jesus. The unique connection between mother and child is exceeded only by the perfect bond we have with God when we choose to follow Jesus and be claimed as God’s own.

That such an intimate relationship with God is open to all people, not just a select few, is one of the most profound generosity stories around. When God sent Jesus into the world, God established through Jesus’ promise that “everyone who believes may have eternal life” (John 3:15). It’s an invitation for all.

Generosity of Community

Jules Chadel (French, 1870-1942), Nativité, 1920. Color woodcut.
Jules Chadel (French, 1870-1942), Nativité, 1920. Color woodcut.

That all-access invitation is also reflected in Jules Chadel’s color woodcut. This nativity scene is an open-air, primitive stall representing God’s generous openness to us all: seek and you will find (Matthew 7:7). Here, we see a bustling, shadowy manger scene as animals and a smattering of townspeople cluster around the Holy Family, all peering in for a glimpse of the radiant infant Christ. The shadows and busy throng of people represent God’s people who, for the first time ever, have full, instant access to the redeemer. And the vibrantly lit Christ child at the center is also a reminder that Jesus is the light of the world.

During the Christmas season, these nativity artworks can help remind us that generosity is far more than just giving money or material goods. Jesus, both His birth and His very existence in human form, is the epitome of God’s generosity.

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