One of the unique aspects of Byzantine iconography is the way in which multiple events are presented within a single frame, as in the icon of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Such an icon offers us a window into the spiritual realm, where the birth of Christ, the most important event in our history, can be seen at the same time as events which occurred just before or after the nativity. Through this we see a most sacred moment, an event within time and yet transcending and even transforming time; the moment when the pre-eternal God entered the temporal realm as one of us.
From a star in the heavenly vault above, a ray of light shines down upon a cave in Bethlehem. In the center, Christ can be found as an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. The swaddling clothes look much like a burial shroud and the manger like a tomb, thus prefiguring the reason for Christ’s birth. And yet even in the darkness of the cave there is great joy, where the ever Virgin Mary holds her son and all creation gathers together in praise of the Creator.
Behind Him we see two animals in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, “the Ox knows its owner, and the donkey its Master’s crib; but Israel does not know, My people do not consider.” (Isaiah 1: 3). The image is one of great humility, of the kenosis or self-emptying of God Who condescend to come down to the level of His servants as a tiny and speechless infant.
The Virgin Mary reclines on a mattress in the cave near her Son. She is the largest figure in the icon signifying her great importance, the rational living ark who in this moment in time brought forth a timeless Son. The blue of her inner garment represents her humanity while the red outer garment represents the divinity, the power of the Most High which overshadowed her.
From the east, three Wise men follow the star toward Bethlehem. They are of various ages and their horses of various colors, representing that the Good News is for all generations and ethnicities. The angels above give glory to God while one announces the good tidings to two shepherds tending their sheep at night:
“Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” – Luke 2: 9-14
It is written that the shepherds then widely proclaimed the news of the event and many marveled. The image of the shepherds alludes to how Christ chooses the simple hearted and most capable of receiving His revelation and also alludes to image of Christ as the Good Shepherd.
Below, the righteous Joseph is seated and speaking with an old man. It’s the devil who tries in vain to cast doubts into Joseph’s mind about the truth of the Incarnation.
To the right, the midwife and her assistant wash the infant Christ, showing His humility to undergo a human custom and also to reinforce the reality of the event.
Through the summary of images, we receive the story of Christ’s birth. We see all of creation taking part in Christ’s birth: the angels give praise and proclaim the good tidings from above, the Wise Men bring gifts, the shepherds give praise, the heavens yield a star, and the earth a cave. It was through the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary that He was conceived, and now the great mystery of the Incarnation, the One who is both fully human and fully divine without confusion, is born into our world that He might save us from death.
Christ is born! Glorify Him!
Video produced by Efstratios Papageorgiou
Written by Michael Gavalas