Nativity Icon Explained

Tonight we take a break from the series I was posting to celebrate the Advent Season and the joy and even doubts that can be caused by Jesus coming into our lives.

Above is the nativity icon of the Eastern Orthodox Church.  While I do not intend to make this an exhaustive explanation, I wanted to point out a few parts of it.

There are the shepherds to the right who were pure of heart and received from the angels the news that the Savior of the world had been born.  The magi are seen to the left being guided by the star.  The women at the bottom right are midwives who display that the Son of God was truly born as a human, and did not merely appear to be human as some early heretics claimed.

At the bottom left is Joseph.  The story is that after the birth of Jesus he walked out of the cave and was greatly battling doubts.  The figure next to him is supposed to be the devil who is, of course, not making it any easier on him.  We may sing “What Child is This?” but Joseph’s question was “Whose child is this?!” since he knew he was certainly not the father.

Mary is facing Joseph instead of Jesus, which is rare in any icon featuring both Jesus and Mary.  She is concerned about him and interceding for him.  Jesus lies next to Mary wrapped in grave clothes foreshadowing his coming death.

Joseph also has a halo, indicating he is a saint of the Orthodox Church.  He wrestled with doubt even after God incarnate had physically come into his life.  It makes me wonder if the shepherds appeared after Jesus’ birth more for Joseph’s sake than anything else.

Our Church’s hymns mention this struggle and Joseph’s victory over doubt:

Joseph, when he beheld the greatness of this wonder, thought that he saw a mortal wrapped as a babe in swaddling clothes; but from all that came to pass he understood that it was the true God, who grants the world great mercy. – Vespers of the Forefeast of the Nativity of Christ.

As you celebrate this Christmas season, rest in the fact that our Savior has come into this world and our lives to heal every messy, doubting, sinful part of us.  There is nothing a repentant heart has done that will permanently push God away from it.  And there is nothing that you have done that he has not already helped someone else through, someone else who is considered a saint.

To read more about the gritty drama of the Nativity, check out an ancient document called The Protevangelium of James.  It was written in the first one hundred years of the Church and it regards all of the anguish and drama in the life of Mary and Joseph.

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Growing up in non-denominational churches, I became weary of many practices in the church. I decided it was time to find a church that enabled me to grow in my faith and talents, but that was also theologically deep. I was drawn to the Eastern Orthodox Church for several reasons. Check out my blog which details my journey into this ancient faith.

14 thoughts on “Nativity Icon Explained”

  1. Awesome! You don’t hear this side of the christmas nativity every day. Thanks for breaking it down for us. 🙂

      1. We receive great Grace by reading the Gospel and we benefit much by reading daily the Lives of the Saints. This is the website of Sebastian Press Diocese of Saint Herman’s Press is where we can order The Prologue of Ochrid, a compilation of the Lives of the Saints.

        We also get the Church Calendar from Saint Herman’s Press. Visit:

        If you don’t have this already, you should love this!

  2. Thank You for so well, in words, putting the meaning of some details on this beautiful icon! I cited Your whole text in my blog today. Of course I mentioned where I found this beautiful text! Thank You, once more! P.s. I just found this site of Yours today!

    1. Thank you for your encouragement and letting me know about featuring my text on your site. I’m glad it you found beauty in it. God bless!

  3. Excerpt taken from the Prologue from Ochrid, written by Saint Nikolai Velimirovic (Correction: Prologue from and not of Ochrid)

    The Holy Apostle Hermas (May 31st)

    One of the Seventy, he is mentioned in the Epistle of St Paul to the Romans (16:14). A Greek by birth, he spent a long time in Rome. He was bishop in Philippoupolis, and finished his life a martyr. He compiled a very instructive book “The Shepherd” through revelations from the angels of God. Hermas was a rich man, but fell into extreme poverty through his own sins and those of his sons. A man appeared to him, clad in white and with a staff in his hand, and told him that he was the angel of repentance, sent to him before the end of his life. The angel gave him twelve commandments:

    1. To believe in God.
    2. To live in simplicity and innocence.
    3. To love truth and flee from falsehood.
    4. To guard his thoughts in chastity.
    5. To learn patience and magnanimity of soul.
    6. To know that a good and an evil spirit attend every man.
    7. To fear God, but not the devil.
    8. To perform every good deed and to restrain himself from every evil one.
    9. To pray to God in faith from the depths of his heart, so that his prayer might be heard.
    10. To preserve himself from melancholy, the daughter of doubt and from anger.
    11. To try true and false prophecies.
    12. To preserve himself from every evil desire.


    To clear up anything concerning depression, doubt or despondency. It is all demon instigated and should be dismissed immediately. The Lord rebuke you satan!

    Reading the Lives of the Saints you will find that you will have a lot more to add to your blog!

    Know that the spiritual battle is constant. We must ask everything of the Lord and not to rely on our own capacity for anything. Ask the Lord to give you Faith, Discernment and Fear of God. Carry on undeterred, fearless and unstoppable.

    May the Lord give you, love, hope and faith.

    Have a great day!

    1. Amen Anastasia. Very good words. I have the Shepherd of Hermes on my reading list, and the Prologue from Ochrid sounds quite fascinating. Thank you for sharing!

      1. I would like to add you to a mailing list. You could include some of what I send you on your blog however it suits you. I have something about Saint Tryphon I think you should have and there are other Saints too. If you wish to be added, send me a message at

        May the Lord bless your efforts to serve Him.

    1. I wish I could tell you, Jean. Many icons that you find online are on quite a few websites and whoever originally created them is either anonymous or unknown to nearly all of us.

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