How do you picture the birth of Christ? Do you think of a little Nativity scene like the one sold in stores, Mary kneeling in adoration beside the Baby Jesus, with the protective Joseph standing with staff in hand? Are there angels, shepherds, and wise men? Who or what do they represent? A historical moment or an ongoing spiritual mystery?
For people of Eastern Christian heritage, Christ’s Nativity is recalled using a highly symbolic picture, called a sacred icon. (“Icon” is the Greek word for “image.”) This image is created in such a way to act as a sacramental window into deeper spiritual truths. The icon below is a modern example of a Nativity icon.
Religious icons are not only beautiful works of art, but more importantly, created as a instrument for pondering the mystery of God’s presence in our lives. One meditates on the works of God by beholding the various truths represented in the icon and “pondering all these things” in one’s heart.
In the icon above, the various bible stories surrounding the birth of the Messiah are portrayed around the central figure of Mary and the Christ Child. Many events are portrayed, but each little picture relates to what is at the center, the birth of Christ. In this manner, we are reminded that, as Christians, Christ is to be the center focus of our lives.
Most of us can readily pick out the three wise men, angels, and shepherds in this icon. But if you go a little deeper, you will see the wise men are of differing ages, proving that God’s wisdom can dwell in people of any age. Two angels have their hands in the ancient open position of prayer, their “job” being to glorify God (something we are also to do). The other angel is descending from the heavens, to bring the good news of Christ’s birth to shepherds on earth (bringing good news of Christ to others is something we are to do, too!).
In the lower righthand corner, midwives wash the newborn Babe, wrapping him in swaddling clothes, the strips of cloth used for ordinary newborns of the time. This story of the midwives, told ancient written sources, reminds us that Christ was not only divine, but also truly human. (The direct line from the star at the top reminds us of Christ’s divine nature, and that he came to dwell in Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit.)
Joseph’s posture, with his back to Mary & the child, startles me. Orthodox theologian Leonid Ouspensky explains that the figure next to Joseph is the devil disguised as a shepherd, who is tempting Joseph to doubt in the miracle of Virgin Birth. (Remember how Joseph doubted Mary’s word about the angel at first?) Despite this, his halo reminds us that he was a holy man, redeemed by Christ and loved by God.
Returning to the central focus of the icon, Mary gives birth to the Christ Child, placing him in a manger box that also symbolizes the church and tomb. Christ is born in a dark cave–he enters into the “darkness” of this world in order to overcome sin, evil, and death. (The golden light in icons is a symbol for God, the unapproachable Light, who nevertheless choses to enter into our earthly reality.)
With so much suffering in the world, the Nativity icon reminds us that no matter who we are–wise scholars or simple shepherds, young virgins or doubting Josephs–Christ comes to free us from sin, to re-create us into adopted sons and daughters of God. No matter what we have done or failed to do in the past, God reaches out to us now, in this and every moment, with unfailing divine love.
This is reason for Christmas joy.
Until next time, Amen!