[This is an article I wrote for Queen of All Hearts magazine way back in 1992.]
“Today the Virgin gives birth to the One who surpasses all created essences, and the earth offers a cave to the Inaccessible One. Angels sing his glory together with the shepherds; the wise men journey with the star. For to us in born an infant Child: God eternal.” In this hymn from the Byzantine Liturgy of the Nativity of Christ, the basic theological truths concerning the Incarnation of the Son of God are contained: the Virgin Birth, the humanity (“infant child”) and divinity (“God eternal”) of our Lord Jesus Christ. Several historical elements described in the Gospels are also there: the angels, the shepherds, the magi. All of this is communicated in the icon of the Nativity—not with words, as in the hymn, but in images which speak even more profoundly than words.
The icon is a proclamation of the Gospel in color and form. The grace of the various mysteries of our salvation is communicated to us as we contemplate the visual representation of the word of God revealed through Scripture and Tradition. So much is an icon meant to announce the message of the Gospel, that an icon is traditionally said to be written, not painted, by the iconographer. In the icon of the Nativity there are treasures for the study of theology and the practice of prayer, if we will seek to understand its symbols and to surrender to the attractive power of its silent proclamation.
As we have already implied, the presentation of the figures and events depicted in icons is primarily theological and symbolic, not only historical. Still less is it sentimental, as Christmas art often tends to be. The transcendent always permeates the historical, lifting it into the sphere of divine realities. Thus an icon can speak a deeper truth, which proceeds from faith, than can a journalistic report of the same event. Since God has taken flesh, entering into our time and space, all things carry the potential for a divine transfiguration. Thus the birth of a child in a humble cave is shown to be an event which is felt by the ends of the universe, and which forever transforms human life and history.
The central image of the icon is the divine Incarnation, the kenosis or “self-emptying” of God (see Phil. 2:7). Therefore we have Jesus lying in a manger in swaddling clothes. His Mother is near Him, for God the Son was “born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4). In the cave are an ox and ass, fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy: “An ox knows its owner, and an ass it’s master’s manger” (Is. 1:3). The cave is dark, a symbol of this world, whose people have dwelled in darkness until Christ, the great Light, has shone upon them (see Mt. 4:16). From Heaven a light comes down into the cave to direct our attention to Him who is the Light of the world. The light itself symbolizes the descent of God into our world.
When you see something in an icon that strikes you as unusual, you can be sure that there is more than meets the eye, that a mystery is about to be revealed. One might expect that Mary would be holding her newborn Son, or at least looking at Him! But her face is turned away from Him. What we have here is a theological statement based on an Old Testament belief: man cannot see God and live, so overwhelming is his glory (see Ex. 33:20; Is. 6:5). Now we know, of course, that Mary did look at Jesus, that she held Him, nursed Him, etc., as any good mother would do for her child. But the icon uses images and symbols to speak more profound truths. The icon is here saying: Jesus is God.
This central image is surrounded by the figures from the Gospels: the magi and the shepherds who come to worship the newborn King and Savior, and the angels who both announce the good news to the shepherds and sing the glory of God. It is not unusual for an icon to depict several events at once, in order to present more fully the mystery. Sometimes we can even find the same person more than once in a particular icon.
In the lower right corner of the Nativity icon, Jesus is depicted again, this time being bathed by Hebrew midwives. This image is meant to communicate the truth that Jesus is fully man as well as fully God. The washing of the infant Jesus immediately after birth shows that He truly came into the world through the womb of the Virgin Mary. Although Mary’s virginity was miraculously preserved, this icon tells us that the Lord embraced fully our human condition. He entered the world in a most humble fashion, not merely appearing human but being truly so.
No nativity scene is complete without St Joseph, yet in the icon he, like Mary, is not quite where one would expect him to be—again, for the sake of revealing a divine mystery. We find him in the lower left corner of the icon, looking a bit sad or perplexed, and there is a bent old man talking to him. That old man is the devil, reminding St Joseph that there is his wife and her baby, that he had no relations with her, and there’s only one way that babies come into the world! We know from the Gospel of Matthew that St Joseph did struggle with the fact that his betrothed became pregnant without him. He was later enlightened by an angel, but what the icon is symbolically revealing is: Jesus was conceived and born of a Virgin.
If St Joseph is wondering how it all came to pass, then we know that he is not the natural father of the Child. God alone is the Father of the Son of Mary. On another level, St Joseph here represents all of us. As Leonid Ouspensky writes, “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” (from The Meaning of Icons).
So, as we contemplate the icon of the Nativity, we may bring to God our own struggles and wonderings, as well as our reverence, faith, and love. With the shepherds we hasten to see what the angels have announced; with the magi we bow in adoration, offering the gift of our hearts. With all of creation we stand in awe before the mystery of the divinity and humanity of Christ, and of the Virgin Birth.
Another element, not directly communicated by the icon but brought to light by the prayer and practice of the Byzantine Churches, is the relation of the Incarnation to the Eucharist. Christ has come into the world not only as its Light, but also as the Bread from Heaven. The Nativity icon is traditionally placed in the sanctuary over the table at which the bread and wine are ritually prepared for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Jesus “takes flesh” anew, as it were, by transforming the bread and wine into his own Body and Blood, which He received from the Virgin Mary.
The helpless little Child in the manger reminds us, in this Eucharistic context, of the Lamb of God, who went forth to sacrifice meekly and without opening his mouth (see Is. 53:7). The main host is called the “Lamb,” and prophecies of Isaiah are prayed as it is cut and prepared. As the golden “asteriskos” is placed over the bread on the diskos (paten), the priest says: “And the star came and stood over the place where the Child was.” Thus the kenosis of God manifested in his Incarnation is linked with that of his sacrificial death on the Cross.
As you meditate this Christmas season on the mystery of God becoming man, allow the icon to guide your mind and heart to a prayerful contemplation of Emmanuel and the Virgin Mother. Never think that you can exhaust the riches of this mystery. This little Child “is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation… all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:15-17). Glory to God in the highest!