The above image is the nativity icon of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is full of beautiful symbolism. In this article, I will explain the meaning of the icon. Several features from it can be found in the extra-biblical book called the Protevangelium of James, which I highly recommend. The Protevangelium is a second century document (written in the 100s) that contains some of the oldest verbal tradition that was passed down in the first two or three generations of the Church.
Something to bear in mind is that icons are images of reality – they show us how the world exists through symbol. They are not still life portraits. While they depict historical occasions, they frequently emphasize theology over literalness, which will become apparent as you read on.
In the center is the infant Christ lying in a manger. The Virgin Mary (Theotokos) is beside Him, and an ox and an ass are behind Him. Christ being born in a cave is not in the Bible, but it is an ancient tradition, dating back to the first and second centuries. He is dressed in burial clothes to foreshadow His death. His location in a cave also foreshadows the grave in which He would be buried and where He would resurrect.
When Adam and Even were first created, they were clothed in the glory of God. That was their natural state. But when they fell into sin, they lost this clothing of glory and became aware of their nakedness. Clothed in animals skins (which represent death), they went into exile outside of the Garden. Christ likewise condescended from His state of glory to become one of us, wrapping Himself in the mortal flesh’s sin and death, as Scripture states, God made Christ who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Christ (2 Cor. 5:21).
Unlike most icons that feature both Christ and the Virgin Mary, she is not looking at Him. Instead, she is looking at her betrothed, Joseph, interceding for him. The Protevangelium tells us that after the birth of Jesus, he walked out of the cave, battling doubts. The figure next to him is supposed to be the devil who is, of course, filling his mind with all sorts of doubts and angry thoughts.
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. Yet Joseph has a halo, which indicates his sanctity.
Sometimes when God shows up in our lives, it raises questions and doubts. God bestows His grace upon us, but then He seems to withdraw a little bit, allowing difficulties to test and deepen our faith. We may wonder why things happen the way they do. But if we persevere, then things will gradually become clear. We have a doubting saint to whom we can look as our example.
TOP & MIDDLE
At the very top is a blue shape sometimes called a mandorla. It signifies the presence and the glory of God. It beams from the heavens, pointing to the Christ child, which shows His descent from heaven to the earth.
On the left, the three kings (magi) are traveling from afar, following the star in the sky.
Angels appear in the heavens above and tell the good news to the shepherds (on the right) in the field so that they can see this divine child born in the little town of Bethlehem.
I sometimes wonder if the shepherds and angelic chorus appeared after Jesus’ birth more for Joseph’s sake than anything else. These divine interventions affirmed the dream that God granted Joseph, and helped Him to trust God. 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)
May we be comforted in the fact that our Savior has come into this world 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.
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. There is a fountain that they are about to wash the Christ child in because He had, in some sense, an ordinary, messy birth.
FURTHER DEVELOPING THE SYMBOLISM
THE OX AND ASS
The ox and ass are two of the most ancient symbols that appear in nativity icons and sculptures. To the left is one of many Christmas (Nativity) paintings from the 1200s featuring the ox and ass.
In the ancient Church, the ox symbolized the Jews, for it was a clean, kosher animal that they could eat. It could also be easily trained to pull a plow and assist in various ways. The Jews had the Law of Moses and it helped keep them (or at least a remnant) clean and obedient to God.
The ass, on the other hand, is a stubborn and wilder animal. It is unclean and not kosher, therefore, it represents the Gentiles who did not have the Law of Moses to guide them away from their pursuit of indecent and immoral behavior.
In Christ, these two seemingly opposed groups came together to form one people. As the Bible says, For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14).
MEETING IN THE CENTER
Above are the angels, below are the shepherds, midwives, and people. To the left are the three wise men, the three kings, the magi who travel a great distance bearing expensive gifts. To the right are simple, poor, uneducated shepherds. In the center is Christ, who brings all of these different people together in Himself. He unites heaven and earth, rich and poor, wise and simple, educated and uneducated, locals and foreigners, obedient and rebellious men, the confident and doubters; all these find their place in Christ.
THE CAVE AND THE HEART
Christ was the mystery hidden throughout all ages – just as his coming in the cave was hidden from most people. But the glory of this mystery is Christ in you. In this way, the cave became an icon of every heart that opens itself to Christ (cf. Col. 1:26-27).
Caves, with all of their mystery and darkness, hidden chambers and secret places, are truly a reflection of the dark, mysterious heart within each one of us. But like the cave Christ entered on Christmas day, our hearts can become the dwelling place of His majestic glory. Like the ox and ass, we have the clean and unclean in our hearts – the things that are good and not so good. We have the devil whispering doubts or evil things to us. But we also have the Theotokos praying for us.
All the distractions in our lives pull us outside of our hearts. Because of that, we have terrible self-awareness. But when we enter into our hearts, we find that Christ is there. But what does that mean?
Imagine Joseph getting up and walking away from the devil, saying, “I’m tired of listening to you and your lies.” He prays to God to help him; he gets up and walks to the cave where Christ and the Mother of God are. That is the beginning of descending into the heart. Of finding the mystery hidden from all eternity, dwelling within our hearts as He once dwelt in a cave near the little town of Bethlehem.
Some of my ideas for this blog came from Jonathan Pageau’s video on Christmas.