Dormition of the Theotokos Greek Orthodox Church in Oakmont, PA
 

The Nativity Icon

"All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 'Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel'"
Matthew 1:22


The icon of the Nativity of our Lord is packed with theology. Most comes from Holy Scripture and all comes from the holy Tradition. It depicts in paint the mystery of the Incarnation, God being man, and the beginning of our salvation. On many icons of the Nativity, there are many details, on others less.

Nativity Icon On the icon that we show on the right, the composition reveals the essence of the event of the Incarnation, its effect on the natural world, and a perspective of its consequences. St. Gregory captures the essence of the Nativity for the Orthodox in one sentence: "It is not a festival of creation, but a festival of re-creation, of a renewal, which sanctifies the whole world."

The angels, who are representatives of the heavenly host, perform a twofold service: they glorify God and bring good tidings to the world. In this icon, some turn their heads toward the heavenly sphere (star) and sing the Glory of God, while another leans downward to the shepherd. These messengers of God, Orthodox tradition dictates, are part of the created order. The first response of the shepherds is fear, then wonder and amazement. The shepherds are poor and unlike the magi, who must be led by the light of reason, they are led by direct experience, amid everyday working life. One shepherd expresses wonder at the message of the angel while another plays a tune of praise on his shepherd's pipe depicting joy of the Good News.

The heavenly sphere, placed at the top center of the icon, is an opening ot the world beyond. This same star appears in the icons of the Baptism of Christ, the Transfiguration, and the Harrowing of Hell. In this icon, a long ray from the star points directly to the cave. This star is no mere celestial phenomenon as the Christmas planetarium shows would indicate, but a messenger from the world of Uncreated Light, signifying that in the Incrarnation, the Almighty God has come very near. The star, like the angels, is perceptible only through the eyes of faith. It is that light which, in the words of St. Gregory, "was hidden from the Jews, but shone forth to the heathen." Some icons have three rays from the star, representing the Holy Trinity.

On the left side of the cave, we see the three Magi. Tradition names them Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior and they follow the star that will lead them to the Christ child. The Magi and the shepherds bring their gifts, and are among the first to worship Christ emphasizing that salvation is for all mankind.

The women on the bottom right are midwives. This indicates that Jesus was born in the normal way and would have needed washing, as a regular human baby would. These women appear with bare arms as one legend says that when Joseph hired them to help with the baby, they laughed when he told them that this was the Son of God. As a consequence of their unbelief, their arms withered on the spot. But as they bathed the babe, their withered limbs became whole again. This indicates that paralysis is antecedent to faith, and that wholeness returns when faith appears.

On the bottom left, is Satan appearing as an shepherd telling the Righteous Joseph, who is depicted as an older man, that Mary is not with divine child, but he has been betrayed thus bringing new doubts to Joseph. Joseph is depicted away from Jesus and the Theotokos because he was not involved in the miracle of the Incarnation of the Son of God, but he was the protector of Mary and Jesus. The icon discloses not only Joseph's personal drama, but the drama of all mankind, the difficulty of accepting that which is beyond reason, the Incarnation of God.

Below the center is a tree. The tree is the "Jesse Tree" from 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 the ass, located on the right of the Christ child, are also from an Old Testament prophecy: "The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master's crib" (Isaiah 1:3). They are shown by the Christ child to provide warmth from their breath. Some icons show the Jesse Tree, the ox and the ass towards the bottom. The ox and the ass indicate that the whole animal world recognizes the Incarnation of the Son of God. He is their Savior too.

In the center of the icon is the Virgin Mary. Mary is lying on a red blanket signifying the color of life. The Orthodox venerate Mary as the new Eve. Just as the first Eve became "the mother of all those who live" (Genesis 3:20), the Virgin Mother of God becomes the mother of a new humanity, raised and deified throught he Incarnation of her Son.

Christ is shown born in this dark cave, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a crib. Tradition uses the dark cave to represent the location of Christ's birth. In this dark cave is the light of the world that "shines in the darkness and the darkness can not overcome it." The crib at the same time represents a casket, His swaddling clothes, His burial garments, the cave, His tomb. This is intentionally done to illustrate that the purpose of the Incarnation of Christ was to make possible the Crucifixion and Resurrection. We are in the middle of the fast, anticipating the Nativity, and the Nativity immediately point to the Resurrection.

Finally, as we look at the icon as one united composition, we can only be filled with joy, not only because of the festive activity depicted, but for the joyous news of our salvation so clearly proclaimed by it. All creation is rejoicing at the birth of our Lord: the heavens (a star and angels); the earth (the mountains, plants and animals); and especially mankind, represented most perfectly in the figure of the new Eve, the most pure Mother of God.

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!


References:
1. Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
2. A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons
3. OrthodoxWiki Nativity Icon
4. The Icon Through Western Eyes by Russell M. Hart


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