Merry Christmas: Nativity icon explained

The little baby Jesus is depicted in a dark cave. This darkness represents our fallen humanity in which He was born. He chose to descend into our misery, into our darkness, to give his life for all the sons of Adam. That’s why He’s so often called the ‘only friend of mankind’ in the Byzantine liturgy. He is clothed in grave clothes foreshadowing his coming death, When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away. (Mat 27:57-60).This same cave, also foreshadows the cave of “the life giving tomb” that is found in the icon of the Resurrection. Christ thus begins and ends His earthly mission in a cave.

There is one central character: it isn't the Child but it is the Virgin Mary. Larger than the other characters, she is shown in the center resting on a pillow (This pillow signifies Her virginity. The pillow recalls the form of the chrysalis [1]. La nymphe depuis l’antiquité symbolize la Virginité. Sur notre icône elle représente la virginité avant, Durant et après l’Enfantement comme d’ailleurs les trois étoiles, sur ces deux épaules et sur son front). This signifies first and foremost that she is the One who gives us God, the Theotokos, the God Bearer. All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 'Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel'" (Matthew 1:22)

St Joseph is sitting in a meditating position, turned away from the main event of the icon. He is confronted by confronted by an elderly shepherd or satan like figure. This figure is the tempter, tempting Joseph into not accepting the miraculous birth of the Saviour from the Virgin. His struggle with the meaning of the virgin birth is symbolic of the struggle of all of mankind in accepting the “miracle of miracles”. 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, praying that he will not listen to Satan.

In the top half of the icon, you have the 3 Magi (Tradition names them Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior).  They are depicted following the star, shining above the cave, and brining their royal gifts to a Babe in a poor cave. The wise men represent the humanity that has not been exposed to the Old Testament – often referred to as the Gentiles. Yet they have a mission to find the “King of Kings” and have travelled far for this event. “And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. (Mat 2:9-10). The three wise men are usually depicted in three different age brackets. The one of the extreme left is very young, the middle one is middle-aged and the one on the right is an elderly person. Thus all ages of humanity are called to accept Christ.

On the bottom right you have the bathing scene. It’s origin is not Scriptural or apocryphal. The first mention of the bathing of Christ was made in the travelogue of a late seventh century pilgrim to Palestine, a certain bishop Arnulf. He relates that close to the Nativity cave in Bethlehem, he was shown a stone water basin which was believed to be the one in which the Divine Child had been washed after birth. Early art depictions of the bathing scene are found from as early as the fifth century. Thus the two bottom scenes show the natures of Christ: the pondering of Joseph of the miracle birth (representing His Divinity) – and the washing of the newborn Child (representing His Humanity).

 You have 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. There were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." (Luk 2:8-12)