The Icon of the Nativity
The birth of Jesus Christ in a manger is one we have heard since the beginning of our Orthodox lives. Emperor Augustus decreed that everyone should return to their birthplace for a census. Mary and Joseph were descendants of King David and Bethlehem was in the city of David.
Because of the census, every inn in the town was filled by the time Mary and Joseph arrived. Mary was due to give birth at any moment. There was no choice but to rest in a cave and wait for their child’s arrival. The cave they chose was used by shepherds to protect their sheep in bad weather. When Jesus was born, they wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him on straw in the manger.
The shepherds were out in their field when suddenly a bright light shone around them. They were very frightened. It was so bright it turned night into day. An angel appeared to the shepherds, comforting them and saying, “Fear not for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” (Luke 2: 11-12)
The icon of the Nativity tells this story beautifully. It shows that all of creation is taking part in Christ’s birth. There are many scenes in the icon. Mary the Theotokos is the largest figure and she is in the center kneeling with arms crossed. There are three stars on her garment denoting her virginity before, during, and after the birth. The Christ child is also in the center, in swaddling clothes, lying in the manger. An ox and donkey are nearby, guarding Him.
A long ray of light points to the cave. It is the star and shows that this event is an astronomical happening and travels to all parts of the world. The star is a messenger from Heaven, announcing the arrival of the Christ child.
On the left side of the icon are the three Wise Men. They followed the star and arrived by horse to bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus. One of them is bearded, one other is not. In this time, young men did not have beards, only older men did. This suggests that the birth is Good News for everyone, regardless of age.
The shepherds are opposite of the Wise Men along with an angel who is proclaiming the glad tidings. A lone shepherd plays his reed instrument symbolizing the human touch to the angelic. A choir of angels is singing opposite of the shepherd, announcing the birth to all mankind and giving glory to God.
In the lower part of the icon are two women. Joseph brought them to take care of Jesus and bathe Him. He is seen in a clearly human form. Opposite of this scene is Joseph. He is seen with an old man and is clearly troubled. This man is Satan who is telling Joseph that this virgin birth is impossible and he is a fool if he believes this. Joseph is conflicted and does not know what to believe. This is a symbol of the dilemma of mankind to accept which is “beyond words or reason.”
Lastly, the tree that is present in the icon is symbolic of the Tree of Jesse. This refers to the passage in Isaiah 11:1-2, “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him.” King David was the son of Jesse and Jesus was from the House of David.
This icon is a beautiful reminder to praise the birth of Christ and to remember the celebration of Christmas is one for me and you.
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