The prospect of God in his immense condescension assuming a human nature and being born among us is of profound significance to Orthodox Christians. Indeed, while in various other religions gods are said to have descended from heaven and assumed a human-like form, their nature was always held to be solely divine. In the birth of Christ we witness the inconceivable, the Theanthropos, who not only is Divine in essence but also Human. If the First Adam, brought about the fall of man from his original purpose and state of enlightenment through his own will, the Second Adam, Christ, will, by virtue of his Divine-Human essence, restore and redeem the whole of humanity to their original state. Christmas, therefore, commemorates a grand mystery, one that believers receive with joy and wonder and it is therefore clear why the Church extends the following thanksgiving him to Christ in the Christmas Matins: "Glory and praise to the One born on earth Who hath divinised earthly human nature.”
That Christmas remarks the apogee of the spiritual development of mankind is evidenced by the Christmas fast and the special days of preparation before Christmas itself, with the week of the Holy Forefathers and the week of the Holy Fathers. The Church services for these days of preparation commemorate the patriarchs, the prophets and all who had lived by faith in the Saviour who was to come and had prophesied about Him long before His coming. The hymns for the Feast of the Nativity are thus full of the original joyful excitement at the mere thought of God's appearance on earth. The Christmas canon begins with a joyous declaration, gradually swelling in volume, of the Saviour's birth: “Christ is born!/Glorify Him!/ Christ descends from the heavens, welcome Him!/ Christ is now on earth, O be jubilant!/ Sing to the Lord, the whole earth,/ And sing praises to Him with joy, O ye people,/ For he has been exhalted!”
Close scrutiny of the icon of the Nativity reveals much about the theology of Christmas and its significance. It depicts creation it its entirety taking part in the birth of Christ. To paraphrase one of the Christmas Vespers, the angels give thanks with their song; the heavens produce the tremendous luminous star; the Wise Men give their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The poor, humble shepherds give their praise and amazement; the earth provides a cave, and humanity gives the Virgin Mary, for to quote the Nicene Creed, Christ is he “who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”
The Icon of the Nativity is a portmanteau of many co-existing depictions. Primarily, it stresses the importance of the Theotokos, the Mother of Jesus. She occupies a central position and is the largest figure in the icon. The Church troparia marvel that a human being could be so honoured as to bring forth God into the world: "The fire of the Godhead scorched not the Virgin,/ When He entered into Her womb.” Her tenderness towards her Child and by extension to the whole of humanity is highlighted by her depiction as kneeling with crossed arms, looking fondly at the Christ-child. Three stars, denoting her virginity before, during, and after the Nativity, are conspicuous on her garments. This scene also has its counterpart in the pre-Christmas troparia, where the Theotokos tenderly wonders at the enormity of what has just transpired: "O my child, child of sweetness,/ How is it that I hold Thee, Almighty?/ And how that I feed Thee,/ Who givest bread to all men?/ How is it that I swaddle Thee,/ Who with the clouds encompasses the whole earth.”
The Christ-Child , in the centre of the icon, is in swaddling clothes and is lying in the manger. In the background is the dark cave where He was born. In the cave are an ox and a donkey guarding the newborn Babe. Even though the Gospels say nothing of a cave, Holy Tradition affirms its existence. Similarly, while no Gospels speak of the presence of an ox and the donkey in the cave, all icons of the Nativity depict these animals. Their depiction and presence fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah 1:3, "The ox knows his master, and the donkey his master's crib; but Israel does not know me, and the people have not regarded me." The long ray of light emanating from the star points directly to the cave and travels throughout the world. This represents the Church’s teaching that in Christ’s birth, all people receive spiritual illumination. The Christmas troparion consequently maintains: “Thy Nativity,/ O Christ our God/ Has illumined the world like the Light of Wisdom”. According to the Orthodox Church, God enlightens each of us in the way that is most accessible and understandable to the particular person. Thus, when He wished to enlighten the Magi, whose custom it was to observe the stars and their movements, He sent them the unusual star depicted in the icon, which guided them to the Christ. As the Church hymn proclaims: “... They who worshipped the stars were through a star,/ Taught to worship Thee, the Sun of Righteousness /And to know Thee, the Day-Spring from on high.”
Thus, on the left hand side of the Magi, illuminated by the star, are riding upon horses to bring their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus. Gold, because He is the King of ages; frankincense, because He is the God of all men; and myrrh, with which the Jews were accustomed to anoint their dead, because He was to lie three days in death. The Magi are depicted as being of various ages. One is a beardless youth, whereas, the others have long hair and a long beard, indicating that they are much older. This teaches that regardless of age and appearance, the Good News of Christ’s birth was given to each and everyone. The star of Bethlehem gave the Magi an opportunity to see the rise of the Sun of Righteousness. All who have sat in spiritual darkness and waited for the true light have, like the Magi, can now come to know this extraordinary Day-Spring of the Sun of Righteousness as exemplified in the Protagogion of the Christmas Matins: “Our Saviour hath visited us from on high.../ And we who were plunged in darkness and shadows/ Have found the truth,/ For the Lord hath been born of the Virgin.”
Opposite the Magi, is the depiction of the shepherds. An angel proclaims the tidings of Christ’s birth to them. A young shepherd plays a reed instrument. This scene reveals that the music of the humans was added to the hymn of the angels. To parallel this, across from the shepherd's scene is the heavenly choir of angels. They are giving glory to God. The triumphal hymn of the Feast of Christmas is the "Gloria" sung by the angels to the Shepherds, to herald the coming of the Messiah is thus characteristic of the salvation prefigured by Christ’s incarnation and which will be completed by his crucifixion and resurrection: “Glory in the Highest to God, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” (Luke 2:14). According to the text of Luke's Gospel the "good tidings" proclaimed by the angels wer not a repetition from the heavens of things that were well-known before. The innumerable heavenly host that appeared suddenly in the wake of the Angel who had stood before the shepherds of Bethlehem confirmed his “tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” (Luke2:10). They also sang of the new, marvellous act of God's goodwill, His sending the Saviour to this earth, the personification of God’s loving kindness.
In the right hand corner are the two women Joseph brought to take care of the Christ-Child. They are bathing Him just as any baby is bathed. This emphasises the second of Christ’s dual nature, his humanity. Opposite the bathing of Jesus scene sits a sad and worried Joseph. He is not part of the central depiction of the Christ-Child and the Theotokos. Joseph, not the natural father is troubled and despondent. An old man speaks to him. He is Satan. True to his Greek name «διάβολος (‘diavolos’ meaning ‘slanderer’) he is tempting and disturbing Joseph by telling him that the virgin birth is impossible and that he is a fool if he believes this. This story comes to us from Holy Tradition. The perturbed Joseph emphasises not only his personal predicament but also the dilemma of all mankind having difficulty accepting that which is “beyond words or reason.”
Finally, the tree that is in the middle of the lower part of the icon, is a symbol of the Tree of Jesse. This tree refers to 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 often mentioned as the son of Jesse and Jesus was descended from the house of David.
It is with the Gloria of the angels that Diatribe greets you in this new year, thanking you for your tolerance, wishing you enjoyed happy holidays and hoping that we all spare a thought for the dispossessed and unfortunate of the world, whose numbers are multiplying throughout the year. Especially deserving of our thoughts are the beleaguered Christians of the Middle East whose simple acts of faith can offer lead to their martyrdom. Peace on earth and goodwill to all men is as topical and fitting a wish as one could ever hope to make in our troubled times. Καλή Χρονιά!