THE BIRTH OF CHRIST
" When the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, so that He could redeem those living under the law, and so that we may savour the adoption ". With these words of the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to Galatians (4, 4-5) begins the apostolic excerpt that is heard in every holy temple during the Christmas Divine Service.
The Messiah, the Son and Logos of God, whom God had promised to send to mankind and whom the prophets of Israel had prophesied, " became flesh, and camped amongst us ". In other words, He donned human flesh, in order to associate with humans, to teach them God's will and to save them, through His death on the Cross.
This " Birth in the flesh of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ " is celebrated by our Church with the feast of "Christmas" (December 25 th ).
The portrayal of the Birth of Christ is based on the Bible's witness and on the tradition of the Church, as summarized in the hymn of that day: " On this day, the Virgin begets the hypersubstantial One, and the earth offers up a cavern for the unapproachable One. Angels sing in glorification, together with shepherds. The Magi travel onward, accompanying a star. For our sakes, therefore, a new Child was born: the timeless God. "
As the verse says at the end, the new child that was born was " the timeless God ", who became a human. According to the epigrammatic definition written in a Vespers hymn of the feast-day, " the One that was ( Christ ), remained, being a true God; and that which He was not ( mortal ), he assumed unto Himself, becoming a man for the sake of philanthropy ". The orthodox hagiographer of the Birth icon, faithful as always to the dogmas and the traditions of the Church, places the persons and the objects in the portrayal in such a way as to serve two purposes: one purpose is to highlight the divine-human nature of the Lord. The other purpose is to portray the rejoicing of the heavens and the earth. (This composition is usually crowned by a rainbow, with the inscription "Glory to God on high, and goodwill amongst the people".) The glorification of the event by celestial denizens and the gratitude of earthly denizens are very conspicuous in the icon. " Icons of this group are distinguished by their very high quality, the profuseness in portrayal of the landscape, and their variety in the depiction of the people in the picture, all of which are set out with a balanced grace and nobility, and even very graphically: variations in overlapping levels, gracefully depicted trees and animals, all providing an idyllic and poetic character to the setting" (Man. Chatjidakis)
Description of the icon (pic.5): (a) The Infant and His Mother. According to Luke's narration, after the Holy Mother had arrived in Bethlehem with Joseph for the census, " she gave birth to her first-born son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him down in a manger, for there was no place for them at the inn's lodgings ".
In the icon, the animal manger is located inside a dark cave. We are told of the Lord's Birth in a cave, by ancient ecclesiastic authors (Justin, Origen, and others). The orthodox hagiographer purposely paints the cave in darkness, to symbolize -with the colour black- the world that was in darkness because of sin, in which the light of Christ now shone.
Inside the manger lies the holy Infant, caressed by the rays of the star that shines upon it. As observed by Ouspensky, " the cave, the manger, the swaddling clothes, are representative of the vacating of Divinity; of the condescension, of the extreme humiliation of Him, the one Who - invisible by divine nature - became visible in the flesh for the sake of mankind; however, they also predefine in this portrayal His death and His Burial, the grave and the shroud ".
Inside the cave, behind the manger, are an ox and a donkey. The hagiographer is inspired by the prophet Isaiah's prophecy, who, speaking for God had said: " The ox recognized its creator, and the donkey recognized the manger of his Lord; Israel , however, does not recognize me, their God, and my people do not acknowledge me " (Isaiah, 1,3). By placing these animals in such a central place in the icon, we are called upon to avoid the Hebrews' sin. The Lord gave us His love, and we must honour Him with our love. He was born for our sake; He is the Lord, our God, and our Saviour.
Apart from the angelic and human forms, our icon also includes representatives of the vegetable and animal kingdoms. Everyone and everything must show their gratitude. A hymn sung during the grand Vespers of Christmas eve gives its own answer to the question "what can we offer Christ, who appeared on earth in human form for our sake?": " What can we offer You, Christ, for appearing on earth as a man, for us? Each and every creation that was made by You, offers up its own thanks: the angels offer the hymn, the heavens offer the star, the Magi offer their gifts, the shepherds offer their amazement, the earth offers a cave, the desert offers the manger, and we offer the Mother Virgin ".
We the sinful humans offer this newborn Lord the Virgin, who, as we saw in the preceding analysis of the Annunciation icon, gave her consent for the Birth of the Saviour. By offering her as a gift to Christ, we are accepting -with our consent- to be saved by the newborn Lord.
The Mother of God is the figure in the portrayal that is made conspicuous by its size and the centermost position that it occupies in the icon. We see her placed outside the cave, on a flat ledge, kneeling, with her hands crossed over her bosom, worshiping the Infant. As observed, " this element of western origin intensifies the glorifying purpose of the composition, as we now have the Theotokos also participating in the adoration of Christ" (Man. Chatzidakis). In other icons, the Theotokos is portrayed reclined, her exertion made obvious in her facial expression, and in other icons, half-seated. " The Virgin's stance is always very significant and is tied to the dogmatic problems of the time and the place the icon was crafted. All the variances that appear in icons are intended to underline either the divinity or the humanity of the Lord. Thus, in certain portrayals of the Birth, the Virgin is either semi-reclined or half-seated; this position is a relaxed one - it indicates the absence of pains and subsequently a virginal birth and the divine descent of the Infant (contrary to the delusions of the Nestorians). However, in the majority of her portrayals the Virgin is recumbent, expressing with this position a severe fatigue and lassitude " (L. Ouspensky).
The honorary hymns of our Holy Church and her dogmatic texts protect us from the heretic teachings of Nestorius, who taught that the Holy Mother gave birth to the mortal Christ and not the Son and Logos of God. John the Damascene says: " The birth of the Divine-Human was simultaneously ‘for us, like us, and above us', meaning : salvation - both natural and supernatural". And even more so: it was a painless, above-the-law gestation " (Orthodox faith publications, 3, 7).
(b) Other details of the portrayal. From the remaining forms in the icon, the angels, the shepherds and the Magi are placed in the upper part of the icon, and at the lower part is Joseph with a shepherd and the midwives with the bath. According to the evangelical narration, an angel proclaimed the supreme joy of deliverance, announcing to the shepherds the event of the Birth, while other angels were looking at the star and glorifying "God on high". Two charming forms are those of the shepherds - one who is ecstatically receiving the angelic message, and the other one, who is playing his fife.
At the top, to the left of the cave, are pictured the three Magi on horseback. (Some icons show them on foot). They are traveling along with the guiding star, bringing their gifts to the newborn Lord. According to the words of the feast's hymn, they represent the heathen who will compose the Church that is to be made up of nationals. The shepherds represent the other portion of the Church: the Judeans. The Magi are portrayed with differing ages; one is young, the other is middle-aged and the third is elderly. This is to underline the truth that Christ - who is the "true light" - illuminates all people, regardless of their age and the status they have in society.
At the lower part of the icon, to the left, is Joseph's form. He is pensive, with his head resting on his left hand. " He perceived (the Virgin) in pregnant condition, and fell into serious unrest " (Proclos of Constantinople, PG 65, 736 A). Near him, we can see a shepherd leaning on his staff.
Ouspensky sees in this shepherd's person the devil, who is bringing doubt to Joseph's soul, and bringing to his mind thoughts that are described in the Apocrypha texts as well as the hymns of the feast. This is why he writes: " In the person of Joseph, the icon portrays not only his own, personal drama, but also the drama of the entire human race: the difficulty of confessing that which is ‘beyond reason and thought': the incarnation of God ".
In the glorification hymn of the 1 st Hour of the Christmas service, we hear Joseph asking the Theotokos: "..... Maria, what is this drama that I am facing because of you? Instead of honour, shame; instead of joy, sorrow; instead of bringing me praise, you bring me reprobation. I can no longer bear the contempt of the people ....".
It is worthwhile mentioning Joseph's place in the picture. He is placed near the edge, at a distance from the Child and its Mother. This is because Joseph is not the Infant's father; he is only the Holy Family's guardian.
Opposite Joseph, at the other end of the icon are two women who are preparing the holy Infant's bath. One is holding the Child and is testing the temperature of the water, which the other woman is pouring water into the font. This scene was inspired by Matthew's and James' Apocrypha texts, where they speak of two women - the midwife and Salome, whom Joseph had brought to assist the Theotokos.
Let us close this description and analysis of the icon of Christ's Birth, with the following hymn from the matins of Christmas day. With its poetic grace, it presents the miracle of Christ's incarnation, and expresses the justified admiration of the faithful.
" How could He, who is uncontainable in everything, become contained in a womb? How could He, who is at the bosom of the Father, be in a mother's embrace? Anyway, it happened, as He knew, as He desired, as He deigned. Albeit fleshless, he condescended to incarnation. And He, the One Who Is, became for our sake something that He was not. Without leaving His own nature, He partook of our breed. Christ was doubly born, desiring to replenish the world above ".
(Christos Gotsis, The world of the icons, ed. Apostoliki Diakonia)