Reading of Icons – Icon of the Nativity of Jesus Christ

As Christians all over the world prepare themselves to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, I have always wondered how Christians in the first few centuries taught the message of the Nativity of Jesus to the people who were uneducated and when the Holy Bible was not readily available at the tip of peoples fingers. It is astounding to just imagine that the Church taught her children in the form of hymns and icons, and it is more astounding to understand the depth of the meaning hidden within the hymns and icons.

It is important to remember that the early Christians did not celebrate Christmas as we celebrate today. Even though the message of Christmas is about a birth of a baby boy, the core reason for the commemoration is to remember that God chose by His free will to become man to save us from our sins. This core message is the central point of our faith. When we look at the Old Testament, we see the Word of God appearing as an angel of the Lord, or as the fire of the burning bush or we hear God speaking in the form of thunder and lightning and other awe inspiring ways, but now, from this time forward, He became one of us; and not just as a fully-grown man descended from Heaven, but in humility God is born of a woman, and comes as a time, speechless, infant. This is shown clearly in the Icon of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, and this icon also depicts other stories and events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ as it happened.

The common form of the Nativity Icon, with a few variations, dates back form around the 15th century, though it draws its sources much older: the Old Testament prophesies, the New Testament Gospel accounts, and ancient narratives on the life of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph.

Icon of the Nativity of Jesus Christ

The New Testament in the Nativity Icon

Contrary to current popular belief, where a manger would be a man made structure of wood with animals tied in a corner, the manger of the first century would usually be a cave in the outskirts of the town and all the animals of the townsmen would be tied there. And the same is depicted in the Icon. The child-Christ and His mother are shown in a cave, surrounded by impossibly sharp, inhospitable rocks, which reflect the cruel world into which Jesus was born. The Gospels record that Joseph and Mary could not find a room at any inn when they came to take part in the census at Bethlehem, and so Jesus was laid in a manger, an animal’s feeding trough.

High in the skies, above the manger, is a star which shines brightly and sends a single shaft of light towards the baby Jesus. The star is also acts a way point for the Magi from the East, who come bearing gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense. The icon depicts that the Magi are still at a distance and are on their journey.

Thronged in the skies are a host of angels bringing the glad tidings of the birth of the world’s Saviour. They were singing praises to God and saying:

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace and goodwill toward men!" St. Luke 2:14

On the right we see the shepherds, people who were not regarded by anyone else, those who were residing outside the town on Bethlehem, are the ones who were first to be given the Good News of Jesus’ birth. They have been shown to be out in the fields, tending to their flock and being astounded to hear the message from God.

Besides His mother, the only company Jesus Christ had in the first few hours of His earthly life are a lowly ox and donkey. This is the humility of God’s incarnation on earth.

The Old Testament in the Nativity Icon

The humbleness of Christ’s origins should not surprise us, as the manner of His birth was prophesied many hundreds of years prior to the event. The presence of the Ox and the Donkey in the Nativity icon reflects one of the many prophesies in the Old Testament book of Isaiah:

The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s crib. Isaiah 1:3

During a child’s birth, warmth is provided by means of clean linen being wrapped around him and being taken care of by the family of the parents as the mother recuperates from her ordeal of bringing a new life onto the earth. Here we see the animals providing the warmth to Jesus by their breath.

In some of the icons of the Nativity is a “Jesse Tree” named after an Old Testament patriarch, father of King David. The tree’s presence is to remind us of another fulfilled prophesy from Isaiah:

Icon of the Jesse Tree

A shoot shall sprout from the stump (tree) of Jesse and from his roots a bud shall blossom. "The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him"

Isaiah 11:1-2

In the flesh, Jesus can trace his ancestry through both His mother and adoptive father Joseph, all the way back to Jesse. This lineage is also sometimes shown in the Icons of the Jesse Tree.

Other Ancient Texts in the Nativity Icon

Another important source for the story of Jesus’ birth is the Protoevangelium of James, a 2nd century text which describes the life of the Virgin Mary. This naturally includes a description of Christ’s Nativity, and the account is more detailed than those found in the Gospels. According to the Evangelium, Joseph brought along two women – a midwife and a woman called Salome – to help with the birth of Jesus. Salome is identified with a woman who later became a disciple of Christ, was the mother of the Apostles James and John, and was one of the women who discovered the empty tomb after Christ’s resurrection.

But where is Joseph? Unlike the well-known Nativity scenes in the West, in Orthodox Icons Joseph is usually found in the bottom of the icon, away from his betrothed and her Son. Sometimes seen listening to an old man, Joseph looks troubled. He is beset with new doubts regarding this birth, and these doubts are delivered to him by satan in the form of an old man, as recorded in the Protoevangelium. The devil suggests that if the infant were truly divine He would not have been born in the human way. These arguments, which ultimately did not cause Joseph to stumble, have constantly returned to trouble the Church, and are the basis of many heresies regarding Who Christ was and is. In the person of Joseph, the icon discloses not only his personal drama, but the drama of all mankind, the difficulty of accepting that which is beyond reason, the Incarnation of God.

As well as declaring the glorious and joyous news of the Birth of Christ, the icon also acknowledges, as do the hymns of the Church, the great mystery of this event.

The Virgin bore the Wonder,

The eternal Mighty One

The shepherds and the Magi

Offered their gifts unto Him.

In the cave at Bethlehem

Jesus Christ our King was born

Angels, shepherds, and wise men

Came to honor their Savior.

On this day, the child was born –

Almighty God, forever –

As the prophet Isaiah,

The Son of Amos, foretold.

O Lord God, who by His love

Lowered himself for our sake,

In compassion and mercy

Visit and heal all our souls.

This Eniyono sung during the Morning Worship of the Service of the Nativity of Jesus Christ.

Christ is born! Glorify Him!