What shall we offer you, O Christ, who for our sake has appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by you offers you thanks. The angels offer you a hymn; the heavens a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger; and we offer you a virgin mother.
— from a prayer for the Orthodox Christmas Vespers Service
Many people see Christ as a long-dead, myth-shrouded teacher who lives on only in fading memory, a man “risen from the dead” only in the sense that his teachings have survived. There are scholars busily at work trying to find out which words attributed to Jesus in the New Testament were actually said by him (not many, it turns out). Yet even skeptics celebrate Christmas with a special holiday meal and the exchange of gifts.
The problem of miracles doesn’t intrude, for what could be more normal than birth? If Jesus lived, then he was born, and so, with little or no faith in the rest of Christian doctrine, we can celebrate his birth, whatever our degree of faith. Pascha, with its miraculous resurrection from the grave, is more and more lost to us, but at least some of the joy of Christmas remains. Perhaps in the end the Nativity feast will lead us back to faith in all its richness. We will be rescued by Christmas.
The icon of Christ’s Nativity, ancient though it is, takes note of our “modern” problem. There (usually in the lower left hand corner) we find a morose, despondent Joseph listening to a wizened figure who represents what we might call “the voice of unenlightened reason.” What is the old man whispering to Joseph? Something like: “A miracle? Surely you aren’t so foolish as to believe Mary conceived this child without a human father. But if not you, then who was it?” As we read the Gospel passages concerning Joseph, we are repeatedly reminded that he didn’t easily make leaps of faith.
Divine activity intrudes into our lives in such a mundane, physical way. A woman gives birth to a child, as women have been doing since Eve. Joseph has witnessed that birth and there is nothing different about it, unless it be that it occurred in abject circumstances, far from home, in a cave in which animals are kept. Joseph has had his dreams, he has heard angelic voices, he has been reassured in a variety of ways that the child born of Mary is none other than the Awaited One, the Anointed, God’s Son. But belief comes hard. Giving birth is arduous, as we see in Mary’s reclining figure, resting after labor — and so is the labor to believe. Mary has completed this stage of her struggle, but Joseph still grapples with his.
The theme is not only in Joseph’s bewildered face. The rigorous black of the cave of Christ’s birth in the center of the icon represents all human disbelief, all fear, all hopelessness. In the midst of a starless night in the cave of our despair, Christ, “the Sun of Truth,” enters history having been clothed in flesh in Mary’s body. It is just as the Evangelist John said in the beginning of his Gospel: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
The Nativity icon is in sharp contrast to the sentimental imagery we are used to in western Christmas art. In the icon there is no charming Bethlehem bathed in the light of the nativity star but only a rugged mountain with a few plants. The austere mountain suggests a hard, unwelcoming world in which survival is a real battle — the world since our expulsion from Paradise.
The most prominent figure in the icon is Mary, framed by the red blanket she is resting on — red: the color of life, the color of blood. Orthodox Christians call her the Theotokos, a Greek word meaning God-bearer or Mother of God. Her quiet but wholehearted assent to the invitation brought to her by the Archangel Gabriel has led her to Bethlehem, making a cave at the edge of a peasant village the center of the universe. He who was distant has come near, first filling her body, now visible in the flesh.
As is usual in iconography, the main event is moved to the foreground, free of its surroundings. So the cave is placed behind rather than around Mary and her child.
The Gospel records that Christ’s birth occurred in a cave that was being used as a stable. In fact the cave still exists in Bethlehem. Countless pilgrims have prayed there over the centuries. But it no longer looks like the cave it was. In the fourth century, at the Emperor Constantine’s order, the cave was transformed into a chapel. At the same time, above the cave, a basilica was built.
We see in the icon that Christ’s birth is not only for us, but for all creation. The donkey and the ox, both gazing at the newborn child, recall the opening verses of the Prophet Isaiah: ‘An ox knows its owner and a donkey its master’s manger…” They also represent “all creatures great and small,” endangered, punished and exploited by human beings. They too are victims of the Fall. Christ’s Nativity is for them as well as for us.
There is something about the way Mary turns away from her son that makes us aware of a struggle different than Joseph is experiencing. She knows very well her child has no human Father, but is anxious about her child’s future. She can see in the circumstances of his birth that his way of ruling is nothing like the way kings rule. The ruler of all rules from a manger in a stable. His death on the cross will not surprise her. It is implied in his birth.
We see that the Christ child’s body is wrapped “in swaddling clothes.” In icons of Christ’s burial, you will see he is wearing similar bands of cloth. We also see them around Lazarus, in the icon of his raising by Christ. In the Nativity icon, the manger looks much like a coffin. In this way, the icon links birth and death. The poet Rilke says we bear our death within us from the moment of birth. The icon of the Nativity says the same. Our life is one piece and its length of much less importance than its purity and truthfulness.
Some versions of the icon show more details, some less.
Normally in the icon we see several angels worshiping God-become-man. Though we ourselves are rarely aware of the presence of angels, they are deeply enmeshed in our history and we know some of them by name. This momentous event is for them as well as us.
Often the icon includes the three wise men who have come from far off, whose close attention to activity in the heavens made them come on pilgrimage in order to pay homage to a king who belongs not to one people, but to all people; not to one age, but to all ages. They represent the world beyond Judaism.
Then there are the shepherds, simple people who have been summoned by angels.
Throughout history it has in fact been the simple people who have been most uncompromised in their response to the Gospel, who have not buried God in footnotes. It was not the wise men, but the shepherds who were permitted to hear the choir of angels singing God’s praise.
On the bottom right of the icon often there are one or two midwives washing the newborn baby. The detail is based on apocryphal texts concerning Joseph’s arrangements for the birth. Those who know the Old Testament will recall the disobedience of midwives to the Egyptian Pharaoh; thanks to a brave midwife, Moses was not murdered at birth. In the Nativity icon the midwife’s presence has another still more important function, underscoring Christ’s full participation in human nature.
Iconographers may leave out or alter various details, but always there is a ray of divine light that connects heaven with the baby. The partially revealed circle at the very top of the icon symbolizes God the Father, the small circle within the descending ray represents the Holy Spirit, while the child is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son. At every turn, from iconography to liturgical text to the physical gesture of crossing oneself, the Church has always sought to confess God in the Holy Trinity.
The symbol is also connected with the star that led the magi to the cave.
Orthodoxy often speaks of Christ in terms of light and this, too, is suggested by the ray connecting heaven to the manger. “Our Savior, the dayspring from on high, has visited us, and we who were in shadow and in darkness have found the truth,” the Church sings on Christmas, the Feast of Christ’s Nativity According to the Flesh.
The iconographic portrayal of Christ’s birth is not without radical social implications. Christ’s birth occurred where it did, we are told by Matthew, “because there was no room in the inn.” He who welcomes all is himself unwelcome. From the moment of his birth, he is something like a refugee, as indeed he soon will be in the very strict sense of the word, fleeing to Egypt with Mary and Joseph, as they seek a safe distance from the murderous Herod. Later in life he will say to his followers, revealing one of the criteria of salvation, “I was homeless and you took me in.”
The icon reminds us that we are saved not by our achievements, but by our participation in the mercy of God — God’s hospitality. If we turn our backs on the homeless and those without the necessities of life, we will end up with nothing more than ideas and slogans and find ourselves lost in the icon’s starless cave.
We return at the end to the two figures at the heart of the icon. Mary, fulfilling Eve’s destiny, has given birth to Jesus Christ, a child who is God incarnate, a child in whom each of us finds our true self, a child who is the measure of all things. It is not the Messiah the Jews of those days expected — or the Christ many Christians of the modern world would have preferred. God, whom we often refer to as all-mighty, reveals himself in poverty and vulnerability. Christmas is a revelation of the self-emptying love of God.
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note: This is a chapter from Praying With Icons bu Jim Forest (Orbis Books).
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Two examples of the Nativity icon:
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