Mystery in the ancient Nativity icon tradition
The traditional icon of the Nativity is very different from what you usually find on Christmas cards, with Mary, baby Jesus, and St. Joseph clustered together in a barn over the manger.
From ancient times, the Nativity icon has been an image filled with traditional symbolic elements, called typologies. Unlike artistic pieces, it has no signed artist and had its beginnings in early Christianity. The icon of the Nativity is often called the Genesis, inviting us to look into the revelation of the beginning of a “new creation.” It is deeply mystical, and we look into it as though peering through a window into a vastness in God’s revelation.
Typologies, or types, are a system of symbolic representations that prompt us to deep reflection and prayer. In the tradition of iconography, these same typologies are constantly present through the ages.
Each element of the Nativity image reveals meaning and truth about the birth of Christ. Meditating on the icon provides us with a marvelous Advent preparation for Christ’s birth. God enters into time, into creation, and into our human lives in an incarnate way.
Just above center, we discover a baby, born in a cave with a donkey and an ox nearby. This is a direct reference to Isaiah’s words from God:
Sons have I raised and reared,
but they have rebelled against me!
An ox knows its owner,
and an ass, its master’s manger;
But Israel does not know,
my people has not understood. (Isaiah 1:2-3)
God expresses disappointment with humanity because of its failure to recognize all that God has done in creation with steadfast love and mercy … mostly rejected by the humans he loves. Yet, unfathomable love comes from this scene of a tiny baby who is the Creator of the cosmos being birthed into creation and time. Perhaps now we understand why almost every Christmas card, even today, includes the ox and the donkey … a reminder!
From tradition, we know Christ was born in a limestone cave used to keep animals, a practice followed frequently in the region of Bethlehem. Mystically, we note that Jesus was born in a “cave,” and then resurrected from a tomb in a “cave,” birthing new eternal life for all of humanity. God’s Son has entered the world, heralding his love and mercy! The tiny baby is wrapped tightly in swaddling linens, and yet bound as if wrapped in a burial shroud. Obviously, this is a prophecy of Jesus’ sacrifice and death on the cross, a destruction of our death by his death to come.
There are two levels to the icon, indicating the heavenly realm at the top where we see angels and the Spirit of God descending as a light. Across the center, we observe the earthly level where we see the kings and the shepherds visiting the Child, representing humanity from the richest and most powerful to the humble and hardworking poor. The newborn Christ is located in the very center of these two intersecting worlds. The mountain reveals our call to an ascent to the heavenly realm, as Moses climbed Mount Sinai to encounter the Living God.
God’s Son has entered the world, heralding his love and mercy!
Never in iconography is God the Father portrayed as an old man with a long white beard as we see later in Renaissance art. We begin to comprehend with mystical understanding that God the Father dwells in the heavenly realm and he sends us his Son.
Jesus is the image of God sent to us from the Father so that we might know God and “see” in his Son God’s loving and almighty power of joy and life. In the most ancient of icons, God the Father is sometimes symbolized by a hand pointing down, meaning that God is the Giver of Life. This is a symbol inherited from ancient Jewish tradition.
Also, from the Jewish religious tradition, a tree is seen in the icon suggesting the original garden of life and happiness — the Garden of Eden. Humanity rejected God’s providence and gave up this life in the garden. Adam and Eve were sent out of God’s remarkable loving care, disciplined to learn that without God’s life-giving hand, they would have to “labor.” Now, in the icon, God comes as a human to share this life with us and bring us back to God’s life.
Mary has given birth to Life. To some, it is odd that she is turned away from her tiny child. This is usually interpreted to mean that she has given her all; this has been a true human birth, making us understand the true humanity of Jesus. What mother can forget the birth of her child, a struggling work of delivery (labor) immediately crowned with the miracle of a tiny, tender human life? Bonding happens immediately as she counts the baby’s fingers and toes, marveling at the Creator’s work.
Many new mothers will profess that it is a moment of encountering the presence of God like they’ve never seen. Here, in the icon, the mother rests on the birthing mat, pondering her son’s birth, and at the same time, turns to the world and those who gaze upon the scene to indicate this remarkable birth is God’s work for us.
One other more mystical meaning can be seen in the Theotokos (Mother of God) lying on her red mat. If we compare it to the Dormition icon, where she lies upon a bier at her death, ready to be transported to heaven to be with her son, it seems that both speak of “birth” into new life.
In the lower left of the icon, we see Joseph, who contemplates the birth and, no doubt, how difficult his role as protector of the family will be. He is separated from the birth event, indicating that he is not the father of the child. An old shepherd stops by to talk things over with Joseph. Some interpret this to be a challenging test for Joseph — to perhaps run away from his responsibility as the child’s protector — and the old man talking to him to be the Evil One tempting him to abort his fathering of Jesus.
At the mid-level, we find the Magi bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These men have witnessed the evidence of something spectacular in the creation and follow a brilliant star — revealing to them that a special kind of king has been born. There are some scholars who hypothesize that the star overhead was an angel.
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” (Luke 2:8-10)
The kings, of high rank and importance themselves, have traveled a long distance and brought meaningful gifts: gold for the new king and frankincense and myrrh as symbolic of his burial. At the same level, we find the shepherds of the field who have also seen a remarkable sign in the heavens — angels singing “glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests!” (Luke 2:14).
Each of these sectors of humanity — from the royal to the humble, hardworking shepherds — is called to “see” Jesus. Now, peering through the window of the icon we, too, can begin to “see” Jesus in new and deeper ways.
The small infant has come to be with us all. He is Emmanuel — the One — God himself, who has come to be with us, for both the rich and the poor. The Hebrew word Emmanuel is a combination of “El” meaning God’s identity as “the One,” with “emmanu” meaning “come!”
In the image of the Nativity, we not only see that the Son of God has come, but we can begin to ponder the meaning of his life and mission that points to this suffering and death in his linen swaddling cloths. In many icons, we don’t see baby Jesus as a “babe,” but more often like a “little man.” This is a typology that he is the Christ who is also human like us!
Finally, in the lower right are the traditional midwives, bathing the newborn according to Jewish custom. It should be noted that the ritual of washing the newborn in a small mikvah, a basin of water, speaks of the deep symbolism of water and purity in the Hebrew context. God, who is understood as the Life-giver, is represented by water, necessary and inherent to life.
Purity, for the Jew, was a holiness ritually symbolized by immersion into water. Washing ritually in a mikvah is an outward sign for always striving to do God’s will and to immerse oneself into God’s hands. In a way, this first plunge of the baby Jesus into water was a sign of his purity, and his immersion into God’s life-giving presence here on earth.