The icon of the nativity: an explanation
CHRISTMAS DAY 2009
I’d like this morning to look at an icon: it is the icon of the nativity. And I’d like to look at it because it seems to capture so much of the Christmas story.
Just a very brief words about icons. They are not meant to be a photograph of the event or person. They are images which are meant to bring out the inner meaning of the event – they show us the event from the perspective of heaven. And they are very stylised, and for those who have not seen this sort of thing before, at first they look very odd to us.
So here it is: the icon of the Nativity – It is 600 years old, and was painted in north Russia, in Novgorod.
1. It tells the story
Far removed from our sentimentalised versions. It is a background wilderness.
Mary is the dominant figure, but she is not the central figure. She has just given birth and is reclining on the cloth.
The central figure is the baby, surrounded by the cattle, and I note that Mary takes her shape from the shape of the child.
The baby is born in a cave. The bible doesn’t tell us exactly where he was born, but simply that he was laid in a manger. Many people kept cattle in caves. Also, in the bible, the cave is often the place where God meets with people.
And so here we have the manger, the animals and the angels, the star, the shepherd, the wise men, the midwives and Joseph.
2. We see layers in this story. And the lower layer tells the story from the human perspective.
The midwives bathe the baby. This really was a human birth. It involved all the human paraphernalia of human birth. People are getting on with everyday living and serving.
Joseph is sat some way out of the centre of the picture. He is hunched up, doubting everything that is happened. Joseph was the first person to doubt the virgin birth. And most commentators say that the figure talking to him is the devil in the disguise of a shepherd. Joseph is thinking through all that has happened, and Mary is looking at him with immense sympathy.
For many of us, this lower tier is where we are at.
Some of us get incredibly busy at Christmas, and if we focus on anything it is the human baby we remember has been born
Or some of us do sit there on the sidelines. We take time to think it through. We wonder what it is all about We wrestle with the issues without ever committing ourselves.
But there is one thing to help us here. Next to the devil, counterbalancing the devil, is the tree. It is put there to remind us of the verse in Isaiah 11:1-2 ‘There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit’. The way to answer the doubt of Satan is to go to the word of God.
3. This upper tier of the icon shows us the story from the divine perspective
The baby is the Son of God. The divine world is often represented by a sphere. The three rays represent the three persons of the Trinity.
And here we have the star, which here is not shown as a natural star, but as a divine light – similar to the light with which Jesus shone when he was transfigured.
The angels on the left know what is happening and they praise God. The angel on the right, who is above the shepherds, holds a towel. It is a symbol of service, but it also is the symbol of the proclaiming of the good news of what God has done. This is the angel in Luke declaring to the shepherds: ‘Fear not, I bring you good news of great joy for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord’.
4. The middle tier. This is where heaven and earth meet.
They meet in the baby laid in a manger.
And if we look in more detail at the baby, we realise that the cave could be a tomb, the manger could also be a coffin, and the swaddling cloths could also be the grave cloths. He is the one who came to save us by dieing.
Luke picks up on this:
Luke 2:7 ‘She wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger’
Luke 23:53 Joseph of Aramathea took the body down from the cross and ‘wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone’.
The ox and the donkey recognise this Jesus. Isaiah 1:3 tell us that ‘The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib’ (in Russia they didn’t have donkeys, and so the donkey has become a horse).
It is a picture of how the coming of the Messiah will transform all of creation
And the shepherds hear the good news and they rejoice. He is blowing his trumpet or flute. The tree beside him is full of fruit. The animals are well fed.
And the wise men – here wearing rather esoteric crowns that look more like traffic lights – come with their gifts: an act of surrender. Kings bowing before the King.
The thing that got to the men and women of the past, and the thing that really we need to rediscover, is the utter utter astonishment that the eternal God, who created all things, who is beyond time and space, chose to become a created being within space and time.
St Romanos, writing about 1500 years ago says:
‘Today the Virgin gives birth
to him who is above all being,
and the earth offers a cave
to him whom on one can approach.
Angels with shepherds give glory,
and magi journey with a star,
for to us there has been born a little child, God before the ages.”
And Augustine writes about 1700 years ago:
Maker of the sun,
He is made under the sun.
In the Father he remains,
From his mother he goes forth.
Creator of heaven and earth,
He was born on earth under heaven.
He is wisely speechless.
Filling the world,
He lies in a manger.
Ruler of the stars,
He nurses at his mother's bosom.
He is both great in the nature of God,
and small in the form of a servant.
And so finally to return to this icon, everything rotates around this baby laid in the manger. And there are a number of diagonals here, which take their cue from the position of the baby.
There is a line from the women serving to the wise men giving their gifts, and from the shepherd blowing his trumpet to the angels praising. And there is a counter movement: between Satan speaking to Joseph and the angel proclaiming the Good news.
And so I finish by leaving us again with Joseph, bowed down by doubts. All he needs to do is to choose to turn from Satan, to look up, to look to Mary – who in iconography a symbol for the church, the people of God – to look to the Christ and to hear again what the angel has already told him: that the child laid in the manger 2000 years ago was and is the Son of God.