The Birth of Christ has always been celebrated and hymned by Christians in some way or other, as it is central to the Faith. The Word of God in past times may have appeared as an angel of the Lord or the divine fire of the burning bush, but now, from this time onwards, He has become one of us; and not just as a fully-grown man descended from Heaven, but in humility God is born of a woman, and comes to us as a tiny, speechless, infant. This is what is shown in the Nativity Icon, and around this central historical event, other stories surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ are depicted. The common form of the Nativity Icon, with few variations, dates from around the 15th century, though it draws upon sources much older: the Old Testament Prophecies, the New Testament Gospel accounts, and ancient narratives on the life of the Virgin Mary.
The child-Christ and His Mother are shown in a cave, surrounded by sharp, inhospitable, rocks which reflect the cruel world into which Jesus was born. The Gospel records that Joseph and Mary could not find a room at any inn when they came to take part in the census at Bethlehem, and so Jesus was laid in a manger, an animal’s feeding trough. Common to the time, animals were not sheltered in wooden barns, but in caves and recesses in the hills, and so this “stable” is shown in the Icon. Christ is depicted in a manger; the swaddling clothes, in which He is wrapped, points to the winding sheet of another cave, the sepulchre. Christ thus begins and ends His earthly mission in a cave.
High in the skies is a star which sends down a single shaft towards the baby Jesus. This star is being followed by the Magi, the wise Persians from the East, who are bearing gifts to Christ. But they are shown in the distance, still on their journey. They are not there.
Thronged in the skies are a host of angels bringing the glad tidings of the birth of the world’s Saviour. On the right, the shepherds – people not regarded by anyone else – are the first to be given the Good News of Jesus’ birth. But they are also shown outside of the cave, still by their flocks. They too are not at Christ’s side yet.
Besides His mother, the only company Jesus Christ has in the first few hours of His earthly life are a lowly ox and donkey. This is the humility of God’s incarnation on earth. The humbleness of Christ’s origins should not surprise us, as the manner of His birth was prophesied many hundreds of years prior to the event. The presence of the Ox and the Donkey in the Nativity icon fulfills one of many prophecies in the Old Testament book of Isaiah: “The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s manger” (Isaiah 1:3). Here the animals are also shown providing warmth to Jesus by their breath.
But where is Joseph? Unlike the well-known Nativity scenes in the West, in Orthodox Icons Joseph is usually found in the bottom of the icon, away from his betrothed and her Son. Joseph, listening to an old man, looks troubled. He is beset with new doubts regarding this birth, and these doubts are delivered to him by satan in the form of an old man. The devil suggests that if the infant were truly divine He would not have been born in the human way. This argument did not cause Joseph to stumble. In the person of Joseph, the icon discloses not only his personal drama but the drama of all mankind, the difficulty of accepting that which is beyond reason, the Incarnation of God.
As well as declaring the glorious and joyous news of the Birth of Christ, the icon also acknowledges, as do the hymns of the Church, the great mystery of this event.
How is He contained in a womb, whom nothing can contain?
And how can He who is in the bosom of the Father be held in the arms of His Mother?
This is according to His good pleasure, as He knows and wishes.
For being without flesh, of His own will has He been made flesh;
And He Who Is, for our sakes has become that which He was not.
Without departing from His own nature He has shared in our substance.
Desiring to fill the world on high with citizens, Christ has undergone a twofold birth.
- The Nativity Icon, St. Kirill Monastery, Cathedral of the Assumption 1497, Russia.
- The Nativity of Christ, fresco, Russian Orthodox Church “Joy Of All Who Sorrow”, Geelong, Australia.
- Nativity of the Lord, Icon by St. Andrei Rublev (1405), Cathedral of the Annunciation, Moscow Kremlin.
- The Nativity Icon, a Byzantine icon from the Monastery of Stavronikita, Mt. Athos (The Holy Mountain), Greece.
Header: The Nativity, fresco, Church of Christ Pantokrator, Decani Monastery,Kosovo, Serbia.