Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, hath given rise to the light of knowledge in the world; for they that worshipped the stars did learn therefrom to worship Thee, O Sun of Justice, and to know that from the east of the Highest Thou didst come. O Lord, glory to Thee. Apolytikion of the Nativity of Christ
The Orthodox icon of the Nativity is jarring to our western eyes. We are accustomed to seeing Joseph and Mary in a warm-looking and very clean wooden barn, each about the same age, kneeling before a wooden manger that has a glowing Christ-child within, while angels shout triumphant above, shepherds approach, and the Magi, newly arrived, kneel with their gifts while the star that guided them shines brightly above the entire scene. Look closely at this scene, though, and things seem off. There is no warm and clean wooden barn, but a jagged mountain with a dark yawning cave. The Christ-Child is within, but He’s wrapped up in bandages? And is the manger really a stone box that looks more like a coffin? Mary is laying out on a blanket, dominating the scene, while Joseph (an older Joseph) is down the mountain looking forlorn while a very strange and sinister figure talks at him. What is happening here? This is not the quiet and happy Nativity we know and cherish in our candle-light caroling, nor is it the Stille Nacht we envisage while the snow quietly falls.
For us, Christmas comes not only just past the darkest night of the year, as winter bears down ever more upon us, but also at the end of the year, at a time when we are busy making resolutions, travel plans, loading up on presents, and gathering with family. It is a time where many of us are granted rests from work, a vacation in the midst of everything. We can kick up our feet in front of the fire, pour some egg nog, watch Christmas TV specials, and relax through the New Year, which we’re going to cap off with another party. But look closely at this icon instead. Mary looks exhausted, Joseph is worried, and the layered scenes have an underlying urgency to them. Clearly, the Nativity of Christ is here depicted not as an end goal, but (to borrow from Winston Churchill) the end of the beginning, a portentous marking of things yet to come.
It’s Christmas! But what does that mean? Of course we know it means the Nativity of Jesus, his birth in Bethlehem where there was no room at the inn, and where the shepherds came to adore Him, while Magi from afar brought gifts. But most importantly it is the Incarnation – God the Word made flesh. That is to say, God Himself came to our blue watery rock, twirling about a mid-grade yellow star in the outer spiral arm of a vast galaxy, a galaxy itself just one among billions we can detect, and actually took on human form, was born as a babe from Mary, and would grow up and mature to adulthood as a man.
And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten… Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not made; being of one essence with the Father, by whom all things are made.
Who for us men, and our salvation, came down from the Heavens, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirt and the Virgin Mary, and became man. – Nicene Creed
So begins the part of the Nicene Creed on Christ. But it goes on to say:
“…And was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and the 3rd day He rose again, according to the scriptures.”
On November 15, 40 days ago now, began the Advent Season for Orthodox Christians. The Advent season includes fasting and an increased prayer time and alms-giving, all as preparation for the coming Incarnation. Fasting, prayer, and almsgiving always are necessary as spiritual preparation for the time to come, the better to appreciate and take joy in the feast. The liturgical readings during this season draw heavily on the Old Testament, bringing to light the many prophecies, foreshadowings, and pre-figurings of Christ. Thus we hear of Jonah and the 3 days he spent in the belly of the whale, with the 3 days being seen as a prefiguring of the 3 days Jesus would spend in the tomb. The 3 youths cast into the fiery furnace are commemorated, with the 4th angelic figure seen with them as another prefiguring of Christ coming to save us all. There are many more readings at the different hours services during the season, all to remind the faithful why they are preparing.
And when Christmas comes it is joyous. The fast over, and 12 days of celebration commence, leading up to the feast of Theophany (Epiphany in the West). But we are never to lose sight of why Christ came into the world, His coming ministry, and the pending suffering on the cross, and these are all foreshadowed too in the readings, and in the festal icon. This is a time of celebration, but the celebration is to be tempered.
This icon, more-so than many, wrenches us from our normal sense of perspective and time. The flat golden glow to the sky, neither day nor the typical night of most Nativity scenes, reminds us that the Nativity is beyond time – it is an eternal event in which we are all present. The shifted perspective of Mary, being herself dominant of the scene and much larger than the other figures, pulls us in to stand by her and understand all that is shown about.
If we start at the top of the image, we see a glory of light with a ray extending downwards and pointing at the Christ Child. This is both the Star of Bethlehem, and the light of God shining forth and descending to the babe. Sometimes this ray has 3 branches, representing the Holy Trinity. But the baby in the manger is different. The baby is tightly wrapped in what looks like grave wrappings, and the manger is no food trough but a stone box that looks like a coffin. This is to remind us all that Christ has come into the world to die for us all, and we should never lose sight of that, not even at the Nativity.
Looking on there is always an ass and an ox. The ox is, according to Jewish law, a clean animal, while the ass is not. Further, there are Levitic prohibitions on yoking clean with unclean animals. Yet because Christ has come for all mankind, Jew and Gentile alike, the ox represents the Jewish people, and the ass is for the rest of the world. Why is this scene in a cave? It is quite possible that a stable for the inn would have used a cave (it’s cheaper than building a barn, let’s be honest), and the cave is also mentioned in the Protoevangelium of James.
Outside the cave, resting on a bed, is Mary. She is very often the largest and most prominent figure in the icon, and, in addition to the perspective issue, this is to pay her honor as having been the Theotokos – the Birth-Giver of God. Her womb, as is said very often in the hymns of the church, contained He Who Is Uncontainable. Her womb was the throne of the Creator of the Universe. Her work is not yet done, however. While she may be exhausted from having given birth, look at her hand, often in these icons it is pointing to Joseph. She is praying for him, and beckons us to do likewise, for Joseph is well outside the stable (remember that men were rarely allowed to remain with their wives during birth until quite recently), and moreover he is worrying and in doubt. There is a strange figure by him, like a shepherd and yet unlike, for he is old and his garb is untidy. It is the devil himself, come to tempt Joseph to doubts, and Mary is praying that Joseph hold firm.
Nearby is a midwife, washing the infant Christ, reminding us that Jesus is human as well as divine. The rest of the imagery in the icon is more familiar to us. There is a choir of angels pointing to the newly born Christ, and beckoning the shepherds in the fields to come and honor the newly born King. The Magi, following the star, approach as well, but they have not yet arrived.
There are a number of variants of the icon. Some may not have the devil, or some may have him instead accosting a shepherd, who in turn is pointing to the angels. Some may have Joseph and Mary together with Jesus in a more western style. Some too may omit the tomb references, depending on what attention is being drawn and to where, and there are additional stylistic differences when one looks at Coptic or Ethiopian Nativity icons too.
The Nativity icon is one of the most dense of all Orthodox icons in terms of the layering of theology, scripture, and history. It is also one of the most studied, especially this time of year, so bear in mind that there are far more in-depth studies of the icon and its development, if you wish to study it further.
Just some of the sources:
In addition to this being in my iconography series, this is also the December 24 entry for the 2018 December Group Writing project on Veneration.