The icon of the Nativity of Christ
The descriptive part of the icon corresponds to the hymn of the feast. «The Virgin today brings forth the Transubstantial, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable. Angels give glory to Jesus with shepherds. And the wise men journey with the Star. Because for our sake is born, as a little Child, God the Eternal». Two other scenes, based on Tradition, appear in the lower corners.
In the centre of the icon is the Baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in the manger, with the dark cave, where He was born, as background. This darkness, in its symbolic meaning, is the sinful world in which «the Sun of Truth» shone forth. The cave, manger, and swaddling clothes are indications of the humility (kenosis) of God.
In the cave, close by the manger, stand an ox and an ass. The Gospel does not speak of them. But their place in the very centre of the icon points to the importance given by the Church to this detail. It is the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah (1:3) which has the deepest significance: «The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s cave, but Israel ins does not know Me, and the people have not regarded Me».
Looking at the icon of the Nativity of Christ, the first thing that draws our attention is the position of the Mother and the place she occupies. The Virgin Mary is the new Eve. As the first Eve became the mother of all living people, so the new Eve became the Mother of all renewed mankind, deified through the Incarnation of the Son of God. She is the highest thanksgiving to God, which man, from among all created beings, brings to the Creator. By this offering in the person of the Mother of God, fallen mankind gives assent to its salvation through the Incarnation of God. The icon of Nativity underlines this role of the Mother of God by her central position and by her size. In some icons, she is lying immediately beside the Baby, usually outside the cave.
Round the central group -the Divine Child and His Mother-are grouped all the details which, as we have said, testify to the Incarnation itself and to its effect upon the whole created world.
Angels have a double service: they glorify God and they bring the good news to men. These men are the shepherds. They are listening to the angel’s message. Often one of them is playing the pipe and adds so human art -music- to the angel’s choir.
On the other side of the cave are the Wise men, led by the star. They look like riding or walking with gifts. A long ray from the star points directly to the cave. This ray connects the star with a part of the sphere which goes beyond the limits of the icon -a symbolic representation of the heavenly world. Here the star is not only a cosmic phenomenon but also a messenger from the world on high, bringing news of the birth of the heavenly One upon the earth»>.
“It is that light which was hidden from the Jews but shone forth to the heathen» (St. Leo the Great). In the shepherds, the Church sees the beginning of the Jewish Church, and in the Wise men the Church of the heathen.
On one side are the shepherds, simple unsophisticated men, with whom the world of heaven enters into communication directly and on the other side are the Wise men; men of learning, who have a long journey from knowledge to life.
In the adoration of the Wise men, the Church testifies that it accepts and sanctifies all human science. It should be noted that the Wise men are represented as being of different ages. This emphasizes the fact that revelation is given to men regardless of their age and worldly experience.
In the bottom corner of the icon, two women are washing the Child. This scene is based on Tradition, which also came to us from the apocryphal Gospels of James. This scene from everyday life shows clearly that the Child is like any other newborn baby. And he is subject to the natural requirements of human nature.
In the icon we also see Joseph. He is not part of the central group of the Child and His Mother. He is not the father; he is just a human protector and he is emphatically separated from this group. Before him, under the appearance of an old and bent shepherd, stands the devil tempting him. In some icons, he is represented with small horns or a short tail. Here on the basis of Tradition, the icon transmits the meaning of certain liturgical texts. They speak of doubts about Joseph and the troubled state of his soul.
The devil tempted Joseph, telling him that a Virgin birth is not possible, opposing the laws of nature. This argument, assuming different forms, keeps on reappearing throughout the whole history of the Church. It is the basis of many heresies. In the person of Joseph, the icon discloses not only his personal drama but the drama of all mankind – the difficulty of accepting that which is beyond words or reason»> – the Incarnation of God.
In some icons, the Virgin is represented by looking at the Baby, «keeping in her heart» sayings about Him. Many other icons, represent her looking straight before her at the external world. Some icons represent her looking at Joseph as she expressed this look of compassion for his state. Here, the icon teaches a tolerant and compassionate attitude forwards human unbelief and doubt.
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