12 min read

Last year, Museum of the Bible started a new Christmas tradition. Opening with the theme, “Follow the Star,” the museum created a stunning set of custom light sculptures centered on the story in the Gospel of Matthew of the magi who follow a star to the infant Jesus. Large, brilliant arches glowing in blues and purples lead guests to a magnificent, rotating star. But it was just the beginning of a grander vision for Christmas at the museum.

This year, our larger-than-life Christmas display added eight sculpted angels. Just as the Star of Bethlehem announces the birth of a king to the magi in the Gospel of Matthew, an angel proclaims Jesus’s birth and an angelic host sings his praise in the Gospel of Luke. The angel chorus has become immortalized in its Latin translation and the soaring Christmas carol of the same name: Gloria in Excelsis Deo — Glory to God in the Highest. But while the refrain is famous today, in Luke’s Gospel it is the first proclamation of the good news. What begins with angels singing to a small group of shepherds, becomes a powerful message sweeping across the Mediterranean and beyond.

It was this connection — the angels sharing the good news with the community and the community in turn sharing it with others — that prompted Museum of the Bible to also begin our Christmas Angel program this year. We partnered with four local churches to decorate four of our eight angels. Each church was given a different section of the Nativity story from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew and asked what parts of the story resonated most with them. Then professional artists Joanie McMahon and Kate Sinclair worked with the churches to realize their vision. Below are the stories behind each angel. 

National Community Church

National Community Church (NCC) received Luke 2:4–7 as their inspiration:

Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

This passage is often lost among the magnificence of the angels and the hurried steps of the shepherds making their way to see Jesus, but the meekness and the modesty found in this verse inspired the congregation at NCC. Some of their youngest members gathered to reflect on the text, sharing what imagery and emotions the verse evoked. The artist, Joanie McMahon, took their thoughts and brought them to life, as you can see in the picture of their angel.

McMahon writes,

Two footsteps, representing Mary and Joseph, begin their journey at the base of the angel. Yet, as they ascend, these turn into many footsteps as the members of NCC walk alongside them. The brick, which replicates the exact walls inside the NCC, is interwoven with maps of Judea, as the journey is shared between the couple and the congregation. The colors are those of an exhausting trip: blurred neutrals, one color softly blending into the next. Yet at the end of the journey, beige turns to baby blue just as fatigue fades into relief and joy with the birth of the newborn king.

Figure 1: The angel from the National Community Church, on display on the staircase between floors 1 and 2.

Figure 1: The angel from the National Community Church, on display on the staircase between floors 1 and 2.

King’s Church

The next verses in the story found in the Gospel of Luke were given to King’s Church. Luke 2:8–14 reads:

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
                 and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

The congregation of King’s Church resonated with the shepherds who hear the good news and then share it with others. Like the shepherds, the members of King’s Church do not have a permanent building, but instead are always moving to unfamiliar places, “intent on receiving and spreading the good will of God.” The artist, Kate Sinclair, combined the stories of the shepherds and the members of King’s Church into one in the angel’s design.

She writes:

I created the design combining gradation of the night with sparkling silver stars coming down over a landscape scene of the stable . . . . Portraits of congregation members — some of whom are looking up toward the heavens as if [they are] shepherds of the light coming from above — depict this church’s own nomadic shepherds around the entirety of the angel’s base. To synthesize the whole scene, a humble and shadowed stable connects the church’s modern shepherds to the original landscape of the passage.

Figure 3: The angel from King's Church, on display on the staircase between floors 2 and 3.

Figure 4: Close up of the angel by King's Church and Kate Sinclair.

The congregation at King’s Church offered this statement about their angel: “Home to more than 250 Washington professionals and students in law, government, health, politics, education, and entrepreneurship, this angel was painted and designed by our church to reflect the glory of God in community. Be reminded this Christmas season of the boldness and beauty of God and his messengers.” 

Grace Community Church

The concluding verses of the Nativity in Luke were given to the members of Grace Community Church for inspiration. Luke 2:16–20 reads:

So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

“God meets us where we are, you don’t need to be righteous to meet him up above,” says Kara, a representative from Grace Community Church. She explains the nature of the congregation as a “down-to earth ‘church for non-church goers.’” The congregation is passionate about outreach projects, responding to “God’s call when he meets them where they are.” Artist Kate Sinclair wove the church’s passion and persona into the angel’s design, writing:

The design begins with the back of Mary and Joseph’s heads looking toward the manger with baby Jesus. This places the viewer in the scene with them, looking upon the manger. Light comes from the heart of the angel, around the manger, toward Joseph and Mary, and ultimately to the viewer, on earth, who is now also a witness. Scenes of the community projects undertaken by Grace Community Church appear on the angel’s wings. The congregation is not front and center, but are quietly pondered in reflection, just as “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

Figure 5: The angel from Grace Community Church, on display on the staircase between floors 3 and 4.

Figure 6: Close up of the angel by Grace Community Church and Kate Sinclair.

The congregation at Grace Community Church said this about the meaning behind their angel: “At Grace, the heart of our community is service. We respond to the needs of our community showing our neighbors the love of Christ in everything we do.” 

Advance Church

The congregation at Advance Church also focused on Luke 2:16–20 for their angel, but included a portion of the story from Matthew 2, focusing on King Herod’s evil reaction to news of the Messiah’s birth. The verses from Matthew 2:16–18 read:

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Minister Kevin Bright of Advance Church connected with the emphasis on a community of praise in the passages. The angelic hosts, the shepherds, Joseph and Mary, and the wise men all praise the newborn Jesus. “Glory and praise” are the words he chose to represent the importance of community and prayer at Advance Church. Taking these ideas, artist Joanie McMahon created a design that shows all glory and praise rising up to the heavens.

She writes:

Deep blues and purples gradually shift into bright, warm colors toward the top, representing the convergence between Heaven and Earth. The star of Bethlehem and the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes are the bright focal points of the composition. Lines of text reading “Glory and Praise” emanate from Jesus, while silhouettes with hands raised in praise fill the space where Heaven and Earth meet. Finally, on the back of the angel is a silhouette of King Herod cowering in fear, representing the evil that was conquered that night.

Figure 7: The angel from Advance Church, on display on the staircase between floors 4 and 5.

Figure 8: Close up of the angel by Advance Church and Joanie McMahon.

Together, these four angels tell the story of Jesus’s birth. But they tell it as part of a larger story about the Bible’s continued impact and presence in our own world. Each of these congregations, together with Museum of the Bible and the guests who engage with these sculptures, has become a part of that larger story. We hope you’ll visit the museum soon and become a part of it, too.

Figure 9: Artist Joanie McMahon works on the angel for Advance Church.

Figure 10: Artist Katie Sinclair paints the angel from Grace Community Church. 

By Jared Wolfe, Editorial Manager

*All biblical quotations are from the NRSV.

12 min read