In a quiet moment on Christmas Eve, we offer the opportunity to contemplate the mystery of the birth of Jesus in the icon of the Nativity.
More than religious art, icons are intended to train our eyes to see the mystery of the invisible God in the material world, conveying theological truths about Jesus and calling us into deeper relationship with him.
In traditional Byzantine icons of the Nativity, such as the one below, the Mother of God and the Christ Child are the focal point around which all other action occurs. Mary is often depicted in a red mandorla-like shape, reclining and looking away from Jesus. The black cave carved into the jagged rock symbolizes the darkness Jesus dispels by his coming as light of the world. Yet, his swaddling clothes look more like a burial shroud, his manger like a tomb, foreshadowing what is to come.
While the New Testament mentions no oxen or donkey at Jesus’ birth, their depiction recalls the prophecy of Isaiah — “The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s crib” (1:3) — reminding us how the humblest of creatures recognized the Messiah, but God’s people did not. The young tree or leafy stump in the icon, usually in the vicinity of the manger, recalls another of Isaiah’s prophecies — that “a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse and from his roots a bud shall blossom” (11:1).
The icon, divided into thirds, represents the visible and invisible realities in a hierarchy. From the top third with the angels — the heavenly realm — a bright light emanates to shine on the Christ Child. The middle third depicts those on earth who heed the call of the angels — the shepherds and the three kings — who recognize Jesus as the Messiah and seek Jesus to worship him.
The bottom third represents the temporal world, with its preoccupations and temptations. There, we find Joseph, who by vocation in caring for Jesus and Mary is called to deal with “the things of this world.” Very different from the Western representation of Jesus’ birth, where Joseph is depicted as gazing in awe at the Christ Child, he is hunched over, filled with doubt and conflicting thoughts, tempted in his faith by a figure representing satan.
We also see two midwives bathing Jesus. These two depictions of Jesus in the same icon serve to provide a contrast that brings into focus the Incarnation. Jesus in the manger bathed in heavenly light communicates his divine nature. Jesus bathed in water by the midwife conveys his human nature and his participation in all things human.
Everything in the icon is in its place, in the correct hierarchy of things, with Jesus at its center, uniting both heaven and earth.
Contemplating this icon in the silence of our heart and inspired by the various figures, we may ask ourselves:
- How do we, like the shepherds, hearken the call to come and worship God?
- How do we, like the three kings, seek out the Lord?
- How do we, like Joseph, overcome our doubts and the temptation to abandon our vocation?
- How do we, like the midwives, care for Christ in our midst in the human needs of our brothers and sisters?
Let us reflect as well on whether we have made Jesus central to our lives and how we can commit to doing so with greater love as Christmas Day dawns.
May our contemplation of the holy Nativity icon make us more aware that we walk constantly in a world that is imbued with the presence of Christ, not just at Christmas, but throughout the year.
Christ is born! Glorify him!
Laura Ieraci is assistant editor of ONE.