The Nativity of Our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ.
(Icon: Novgorod school, late fifteenth century, photo courtesy of Jim Forest).
The descriptive part of the icon corresponds to the Kontakion of the festival: “The Virgin to-day bringeth forth the Transubstantial, and the earth offereth a cave to the Unapproachable. Angels give glory with the shepherds, and the wise men journey with the Star; because for our sake is born, as a little Child, God the Eternal.” Two other scenes, based on Tradition, appear in the lower corners.
In its content the icon of Christ’s Nativity has two fundamental aspects: first of all, it discloses the very essence of the event, the immutable fact of the Incarnation of God; it places us before a visible testimony of the fundamental dogma of Christian faith, underlining by its details both the Divinity and the human nature of the Word made flesh. Secondly, the icon of the Nativity shows us the effect of this event on the natural life of the world, gives as it were a perspective of all its consequences. For according to the words of St. Gregory the Theologian, the Nativity of Christ “is not a festival of creation but a festival of re-creation”, of a renewal which sanctifies the whole world.
“The Nativity of Christ” by Leonid Ouspensky in Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons(Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983) 157.
A quick glance at the icon of Christ’s Nativity now gives us a better idea of the significant parallels existing between the two feasts: both of them can be called “Pascha.” The Child-God is born mystically in the heart of Hades. “Torch-bearer of Light, the flesh of God beneath the earth dissipates the darkness of Hades,” proclaims the liturgy of the Nativity, which is echoed again at Matins of Holy Saturday: “You descended to earth to save Adam and not finding him, O Master, you went down into Hades to look for him.” The Nativity thus heralds the Resurrection; in a way, it even includes it. Does not the Divine Child lie in the cavern wrapped in swaddling bands which are similar to the bands of Lazarus who was raised from the dead? The dark cavern is an image of hell, which we find again in the icon of the Baptism of Jesus, where the Jordan River is transformed into a watery tomb, an element of the cosmos which is purified by His body. Nor should we forget the black grotto we see beneath the Cross in the icon of the Crucifixion.
Michel Quenot, The Icon: Window on the Kingdom, 142-143
Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it today! I apologise for the relative silence of this blog, and hope to make amends in the coming week!