26 June 2024

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
48, Wednesday 26 June 2024

The icon of the Nativity in the new iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

The week began with the Fourth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity IV, 23 June 2024), and Monday was the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist. This week I have been marking the anniversaries of ordination as deacon 24 years ago (25 June 2000) and priest 23 years ago (24 June 2001).

Before today begins I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a reflection on the icons in the new iconostasis or icon stand in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford.

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

4, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The icon of the Nativity is second from the left among the 12 feasts depicted in the upper tier of the new iconostasis in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024; click on images to view full screen)

Matthew 7: 15-20 (NRSVUE):

[Jesus said:] 15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits.”

The Virgin Mary, the new-born Christ Child and Saint Joseph … a detail in the icon of the Nativity in iconostasis or icon stand in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Stony Stratford iconostasis 11: the Nativity:

Over the last few weeks, I have been watching the building and installation of the new iconostasis or icon screen in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford. In my prayer diary over these weeks, I am reflecting on this new iconostasis, and the theological meaning and liturgical significance of its icons and decorations.

The lower, first tier of a traditional iconostasis is sometimes called Sovereign. On the right side of the Beautiful Gates or Royal Doors facing forward is an icon of Christ, often as the Pantokrator, representing his second coming, and on the left is an icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), symbolising the incarnation. It is another way of saying all things take place between Christ’s first coming and his second coming.

The six icons on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict Christ to the right of the Royal Doors, as seen from the nave of the church, and the Theotokos or the Virgin Mary to the left. All six icons depict (from left to right): the Dormition, Saint Stylianos, the Theotokos, Christ Pantocrator, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Ambrosios.

Traditionally, the upper tier has an icon of the Mystical Supper in the centre, with icons of the Twelve Great Feasts on either side, in two groups of six: the Nativity of the Theotokos (8 September), the Exaltation of the Cross (14 September), the Presentation of the Theotokos (21 November), the Nativity of Christ (25 December), the Baptism of Christ (6 January), the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (2 February), the Annunciation (25 March), the Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), the Ascension, Pentecost, the Transfiguration (6 August) and the Dormition (15 August).

In Stony Stratford, these 12 icons in the top tier, on either side of the icon of the Mystical Supper, are (from left): the Ascension, the Nativity, the Baptism of Christ, the Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Raising of Lazarus and the Crucifixion; and the Harrowing of Hell or the Resurrection, the Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Pentecost, the Transfiguration, the Presentation and the Annunciation.

The second icon in this top tier of 12 icons in Stony Stratford is the icon of the Nativity. The Greek words above read: Η γέννηση του Χριστού (‘The Birth of Christ’), echoing the opening words of Saint Matthew’s Gospel: Βίβλος γενέσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ … ‘An account of the genealogy [or birth] of Jesus the Messiah …’ (Matthew 1: 1).

The icon of the Nativity is based on the Gospel accounts of the Nativity by Saint Matthew and Saint Luke, but there are additional details from the Biblical prophecies of Isaiah and from the extra-biblical book Protoevangelium of James, a second century document with some of the oldest verbal traditions about Christmas.

The five main characters or sets of characters in the Christmas story – Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, the Shepherds and the Angels, and the Wise Men – are seen in the icon of the Nativity, which gives a very different take on the Christmas story than the ones found on popular Christmas cards in northern Europe.

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 the expulsion from Paradise. In the centre of the icon are the Virgin Mary, the central and disproportionately large figure, who is seen 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, Christ 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 Christ 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 Christ 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 the Virgin Mary is the most dominant figure in the icon, she is not the most important. Here she is shown kneeling, though in some versions of this icon she is seated.

The Virgin 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 Christ 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 some icons, the Virgin Mary is lying on a sort of long, red cushion – it almost looks like a bean bag – with the Christ Child 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. Icon-writers present the Virgin Mary like this to remind us that the birth of Christ – like any birth – was hard work and that it was a human event. Jesus Christ was fully human. The way the Virgin Mary wraps herself in her cloak and turns to get some sleep tells us that.

But Jesus Christ 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 Star: 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: 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 Christ from heaven itself.

The shepherds are on the right-hand side of the icon. One lone young shepherd looks up and is blessed by an angel looking down on him. Below this shepherd, the sheep drink in a river, a reminder that Christ is the Good Shepherd. In the lower part of the icon a shepherd is wearing a wreath as he plays his flute, showing the joy of the Good News.

Saint Luke is the only evangelist to mention the shepherds in his Gospel. Christ later says: ‘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 arrival of the Wise Men in the icon of the Nativity in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Wise Men: The Wise Men are on the left-hand side of the icon. Sometimes they are shown in icons on horseback, their faces turned up looking for the star that has led them to Bethlehem. In those icons, the uphill angle of the horses tells of their long, hard journey and of 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 of the urgency and danger in their part of the story.

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.

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 tree: To the right in the icon, behind Saint Joseph is a tree, representing the Jesse Tree in the prophecy that says 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 near the centre of the icon are also referred to in a 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, including this one, the ox and ass are near the Christ child, providing warmth from their breath.

Saint Joseph: The Righteous Joseph is to the right, kneeling outside the cave, away from the Christ Child and the Virgin Mary. 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 the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ.

Saint Joseph reminds us of a very human dilemma in the Nativity stories: how could the Virgin Mary be pregnant? It was a scandalous thing (see Matthew 1: 18-24). From Saint Matthew’s Gospel, it is clear that Saint Joseph did not believe the Virgin Mary’s explanation of how she had conceived. It was only after a dream that he accepted the Virgin Mary as his wife.

In some icons, Saint Joseph has his head turned down from facing the Virgin Mary, listening to his doubts and fears. In those icons, he cuts an isolated figure, at the bottom of the picture, and he looks thoroughly fed up with everything. Yet, despite any lingering doubts he may have harboured, Saint Joseph has an important place in the whole icon. Doubt can help us get honest with God and with ourselves.

The tempting old man: Some icons of the Nativity include an old man speaking to Saint Joseph, representing the devil bringing new doubts to Saint Joseph. The devil suggests that if the infant were truly divine he would not have been born in a human way. This argument, presented in different forms, keeps reappearing throughout the history of the Church, and is the foundation of many heresies.

In the person of Saint 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 the Virgin Mary in the centre, from her position at the centre of the icon, looks at Saint Joseph as if trying to overcome his doubts and temptations.

The Angels: The angels in the icon are glorifying God, announcing the Good News to the shepherds, or singing. In some icons, an angel is shown kneeling or bowing in worship before Christ, lying in his cave, while other angels are depicted standing like a choir, singing.

The midwives: Some icons of the Nativity also show at the bottom right the women who were midwives, telling us that Christ was born in the natural, human way and would have needed washing, as a regular human baby does.

The angels in the icon of the Nativity in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Wednesday 26 June 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Anglican support and advocacy for exiled people in Northern France.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with a programme update by Bradon Muilenburg, Anglican Refugee Support Lead in Northern France, the Diocese in Europe, the Diocese of Canterbury and USPG.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (Wednesday 26 June 2024) invites us to pray:

May the prophetic power of our collective lament deliver us from cynicism and indifference, and safeguard vulnerability in a culture of dominance and control. May we foster solidarity and belonging in a world of disconnection.

The Collect:

O God, the protector of all who trust in you,
without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy:
increase and multiply upon us your mercy;
that with you as our ruler and guide
we may so pass through things temporal
that we lose not our hold on things eternal;
grant this, heavenly Father,
for our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Eternal God,
comfort of the afflicted and healer of the broken,
you have fed us at the table of life and hope:
teach us the ways of gentleness and peace,
that all the world may acknowledge
the kingdom of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Gracious Father,
by the obedience of Jesus
you brought salvation to our wayward world:
draw us into harmony with your will,
that we may find all things restored in him,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.

The new iconostasis or icon stand in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford in recent weeks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

An introduction to the Stony Stratford iconostasis (15 June 2024)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

A modern version of the traditional Orthodox icon of the Nativity of Christ by Alexandra Kaouki (Αλεξανδρα Καουκι) of Rethymnon

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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