How many Christmas cards have you received this Christmas? And how many of them depicted the Christmas story, keeping Christ at the heart of Christmas?
The five main characters or sets of characters in the Christmas story – Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the Angels, and the Wise Men – are seen in the icon of the Nativity, which gives us a very different take on the Christmas story than the ones we find on popular Christmas cards.
In the Orthodox tradition, the icon of the Nativity of Christ shows the Creator of the Universe entering history as a new-born babe, and the impact of his birth on the natural life of the world.
The background of the icon traditionally displays an inhospitable world, the world since our expulsion from Paradise. In the centre of the icon are Mary, the central and disproportionately large figure, who is see resting in a cave, and the Christ Child as a baby in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. Around the icon, we can see details from the Christmas story.
The icon is rich with theological symbolism.
The Christ Child
The little helpless figure in swaddling clothes represents the complete submission of Christ to the physical conditions governing the human race.
The earth provides him with a cave. The animals watch over him in silent wonder and we humans offer him one of us, the Virgin Mother. His manger is like a coffin and his swaddling clothes are very much like the grave clothes, for this child is born to die.
Far from the Christmas-card image of being born in a sweet, cosy stable, surrounded by cuddly animals and adoring fans, Jesus is born in a dark cave. The craggy rocks above the cave form the shadow of the cross on which he dies.
One very old version of the Christmas story has it that Jesus was born in a cave outside Bethlehem, which is why the icon shows him that way, in the midst of jagged rocks and pitch dark. Christ has come into the world to save it, but that means he has come into a place of darkness and danger. He is in the depths. His birth anticipates his death, just as the gift of myrrh (a spice used in burials) points us to Christ’s death and burial.
So while the nativity is a joyful event, it carries a serious message. Jesus is God with us, God come to live the life of a human being on earth. But he has also come to die, to set us free from our slavery to evil, poverty and injustice. As one writer puts it: “God became a human child so that we might become children of God.”
The Virgin Mary
The Virgin Mary is known in Orthodoxy as the Theotokos, the God-bearer or Mother of God. Although Mary is the most dominant figure in the icon, she is not the most important. Sometimes she is shown kneeling, still concerned.
Mary is right at the centre of the Christmas story, which is why she is at the centre of this icon. It was her “yes” spoken to the angel who told her she would give birth to Jesus which set the whole story in motion. It was her belief that God could do what he promised that made it all possible. And it was she who gave birth and laid her son in a feeding trough for cattle, due to overcrowding in Bethlehem.
In this icon, we see Mary lying on a sort of long, red cushion – it almost looks like a bean bag – with Jesus in his makeshift cot by her side. She is pulling her cloak around her for warmth, and perhaps she is trying to catch some sleep after the exhaustion of giving birth. The icon-writer presents Mary like this to remind us that the birth of Jesus – like any birth – was hard work and that it was a human event. Jesus was fully human. The way Mary wraps herself in her cloak and turns to get some sleep tells us that.
But Jesus was more than just a human being, as we are told in the words of the nativity narratives in the Gospels, and through the images in this icon.
The sky salutes the Christ Child with a star, the light of wisdom. This is a sign that Christ came for everyone. Some icons have three rays from the star, representing the Holy Trinity.
The shepherds and the Wise Men or Magi bring their gifts as signs that Christ has come for everyone.
Saint Luke’s Gospel has a special emphasis on the poor and disadvantaged, on people living on the margins of society. While Saint Matthew’s Gospel focuses on the wise men who travelled from the East, Saint Luke’s spotlight falls on these working men, who hear the news about the birth of Jesus from heaven itself.
There shepherds are on the right-hand side of the icon, and one young shepherd is wearing a wreath as he plays his flute, showing the joy of the Good News.
Below the shepherds, their sheep drink in a river. One of the shepherds looks up and is blessed by an angel looking down on him. Luke is the only evangelist to mention the shepherds in his Gospel.
Jesus later said, “I have come to bring good news to the poor.” The shepherds in the story remind us of God’s love for those who are forgotten and left behind in our world.
The Wise Men
The Wise Men are on horseback on the left-hand side of the icon, galloping uphill, their faces turned up looking for the star which has led them there. The wise men are also part of the Christmas story, and they bring not just their strange and exotic gifts but they also bring the world of politics and military power into the story.
King Herod, a violent and cunning ruler who was paranoid about holding on to his power, is alarmed by his unexpected visitors. Eventually, he orders the horrific massacre of all new-born baby boys in Bethlehem in an attempt to liquidate any rival to his throne, no matter how young he may be.
In this icon, the uphill angle of the horses tells of the long, hard journey of the wise men, and how important the event was to them. Perhaps they alone in this story have realised something of what was truly happening. And the speed of their horses tells us of the urgency and danger in their part of the story.
They show how the story of the incarnation of Christ was rooted in the real world of political corruption and intrigue, with a ruler who was prepared to kill anyone who stood in his way. It is this real world of oppression, death and danger that Christ has come to save.
The women on the bottom right of the icon are midwives. They tell us that Jesus was born in the normal way and would have needed washing, as a regular human baby does.
Below the centre of the icon is a tree, representing the Jesse Tree in Old Testament prophecy, which says that a shoot will sprout from the stump of Jesse, the father of King David: “A shoot shall sprout from the stump (tree) of Jesse and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him” (Isaiah 11: 1-2).
The ox and ass
Christ comes into the world that does not recognise him for who he is. The ox and the ass below the centre of the icon are also referred to in an Old Testament prophecy: “The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1: 3). In some icons, the ox and ass are shown near the Christ child, providing warmth from their breath.
The Righteous Joseph is shown away from Jesus and the Virgin Mary, to the bottom left. This is to show that he was not involved in the miracle of the Incarnation of the Son of God, but that he was the protector of Mary and Jesus.
Joseph reminds us of a very human dilemma in the Nativity stories: how could Mary be pregnant? It was a scandalous thing (see Matthew 1: 18-24).
From Saint Matthew’s Gospel, it is clear that Joseph did not believe Mary’s explanation of how she had conceived. It was only after a dream that he accepted Mary as his wife.
In the icon, Joseph has his back to Mary, listening to his doubts and fears. He cuts an isolated figure, right at the bottom of the picture, and he looks thoroughly fed up with everything. And yet, despite any lingering doubts he may have harboured, Joseph has an important place in the whole icon. Doubt can help us get honest with God and with ourselves.
The tempting old man
The old man speaking to Joseph represents the devil bringing new doubts to Joseph. The devil suggests that if the infant were truly divine he would not have been born in the human way. This argument, presented in different forms, keeps on reappearing throughout the history of the Church, and is the foundation of many heresies.
In the person of Joseph, the icon discloses not only his personal drama, but the drama of all humanity, the difficulty of accepting that which is beyond reason, the Incarnation of God. But Mary in the centre, from her reclining position at the centre of the icon, looks at Joseph as if trying to overcome his doubts and temptations.
The Angels in the icon are glorifying God, tending to the action, and ministering. They are announcing the Good news to the shepherds, or singing. The angels in the middle group are kneeling or bowing in worship before Jesus, lying in his cave, while the angels on the left of the icon are standing like a choir, singing.
Prayer and reflection
Spend a few moments in thought and prayer while you are at your computer or laptop. If it is now night-time, dim or turn off the lights in your room. If it is possible, light a candle or night-light and think of Mary and her “yes” to God. Remember her open-hearted faith.
If you have some of those Christmas cards you have received close to hand, take three or four of them and pray for the people who have sent them to you. If you haven’t, pray for those you are thinking of most at the moment.
Here is a prayer to pray for yourself and others:
May God shield us
May God fill us
May God keep us
May God watch over us.
May God bring us
To the land of peace
To the country of the king
To the peace of eternity.
Have a Happy and a Holy Christmas.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay was first posted on 20 December 2008