What shall we offer you, O Christ, who for our sake has appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by you offers you thanks. The angels offer you a hymn; the heavens, a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger – and we offer you a virgin mother.
Every icon shows the story of our salvation. Contemplating the image leads us to understand and wonder more deeply at our redemption. “As the deer yearns for running streams, so my soul is thirsting for you, My God.” In praying before an icon we draw deeply from the wells of salvation. Every part an icon has a meaning; every colour, every image, every material used means something. The icon is painted on wood, recalling the wood of the cross. It is then covered with linen, recalling the linen which wrapped the body of Christ before it was laid in the tomb. Layers of alabaster are applied to this surface and the pigments used are all directly from the earth. These pigments are mixed with egg yolk and wine vinegar, to make the paint; the egg being the symbol of the Resurrection. The iconographer does not sign the work in the manner of western artists, just as one would not take credit for a prayer.
Without the Feast of the Nativity there would be no icons. In the Nativity we have the first icon – the first image of Christ. Through the writings of St Luke, in his gospel, we have the image of Christ, our saviour, born in powerlessness and poverty; known first to shepherds and later to the wise men. This message is not just for Christmas; it is for every day if we are to appreciate the grace of God at work in our lives.
The traditional icon of the Nativity from the 15th century (attributed to Rublev) still has a message for our modern world which Sister Aloysius McVeigh of Derry has written into her recent work for Nativity Parish, Poleglass. The Nativity icon is in sharp contrast to the sentimental imagery we are used to in Western Christmas art. In the icon there is no charming Bethlehem bathed in the light of the nativity star but only a rugged mountain with a few plants. The austere mountain suggests a hard, unwelcoming world in which survival is a real battle -the world since our expulsion from Paradise. Through the mercy of God, the mountain is stepped to make assent to the heights possible, to the dwelling place of “God the most high”. Each step is blessed with light. Christ enters our world as it is, “to restore unity to creation, and lead us from exile into your heavenly kingdom.” (Christmas Preface 2). He is the light in the darkness.
There on the lower left we find a despondent Joseph listening to a figure who represents what we might call “the voice of unenlightened reason.” This figure is accompanied by an unfriendly looking black dog to give a clue to the figure’s identity. Winston Churchill wrote in his diaries that he was haunted by “the black dog of depression.” A further clue lies in the depiction of this character. His clothes lack the geometric folds which indicate inner harmony and order and he is shown in profile; the only figure shown like this. The Father of Lies hides his true identity behind an acceptable façade. All other faces in the icon present both eyes, indicating that they are giving full attention. This figure is shown as if unwilling to disclose his true personality.
As icons are so deeply silent, we are free to wonder about Joseph’s morose condition. One explanation is that he cannot quite believe what he has experienced. Divine activity intrudes into our lives in such a mundane, physical way. A woman gives birth to a child as women have been doing since Eve. Joseph has witnessed that birth and there is nothing different about it, unless it be that it occurred in abject circumstances, in a cave in which animals are kept in cold weather. Joseph has had his dreams, he has heard angelic voices, he has been reassured in a variety of ways that the child born of Mary is none other than the Awaited One, the Anointed, God’s Son. But still belief comes hard. The labour of giving birth is arduous, as we see in Mary’s reclining figure -and so is the labour to believe. Mary has completed this stage of her struggle, but Joseph still grapples with his. There is something about the way Mary turns away from her son and looks towards her husband. Jesus, although He is an infant, is the Lord, the Giver of Life and her compassionate, affectionate attention is on Joseph, weakened by his struggle. Those who walk “in the valley of the shadow of death” are usually unaware of the compassionate gaze of Our Mother on them. In this look Our Lady offers compassion and her prayers to all who struggle with questions and doubts of faith. They are not alone. Even the black dog turns in retreat, knowing that Joseph is beyond temptation. Dogs are good judges of the human character.
The theme is not only in Joseph’s face. The rigorous black of the cave of Christ’s birth in the centre of the icon represents all human disbelief, all fear, all hopelessness. In the cave of our despair, Christ, “the Sun of Truth,” enters history having been clothed in flesh in Mary’s body. It is just as the Evangelist John said in the beginning of his Gospel: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
The most prominent figure in the icon is Mary, framed by the red blanket she is resting on -the colour of life, the colour of blood. Christians call her the Theotokos: God-bearer, or Mother of God. Her hands reach for Joseph in matrimonial concern and point him to the source of Life, her son Jesus. “Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest.” (Mt. 11: 28) Our Lady’s titles are written in Cyrillic script. She is, as always in iconography, adorned by three stars, signs of her triple virginity – before, during and after her pregnancy. Her quiet but wholehearted assent to the invitation brought to her by the Archangel Gabriel has led her to Bethlehem, making a cave at the edge of a peasant village the centre of the universe. He who was distant has come near, first filling her body, now visible in the flesh. Mary is depicted as recumbent -a position which indicates the humanity of the Christ child.
As is usual in iconography, the main event is moved to the foreground, free of its surroundings. So the cave is placed behind rather than around Mary and her child. The birth occurs in a cave that was being used as a stable.
We see in the icon that Christ’s birth is not only for us but for all creation, including voiceless animals and the plants. The donkey and the cow stand for “all creatures great and small,” endangered, punished and exploited by human beings. They too are victims of the Fall. Christ’s Nativity is for them as well as for us.
There is a ray of divine light that connects heaven with the baby, “the sword of sorrow” which Simeon prophesied would pierce the heart of Mary (Lk 2:35). The sword is also the tree of victory, the Cross. This ray of light is also connected with the star that led the magi to the cave. “Christ is the light of the world” and this, too, is suggested by the ray connecting heaven to the manger. “Today in him, a new light has dawned upon the world.” the Church sings on Christmas, in the third preface.
We see that the Christ child’s body is wrapped in “swaddling clothes.” In icons of Christ’s burial, you will see he is wearing similar bands of cloth, as does Lazarus in the icon of his raising by Christ. In the Nativity icon, the manger looks much like a coffin. In this way, the icon links birth and death. This is why Christ was born; to die for us. The poet Rilke says we bear our death within us from the moment of birth. The icon of the Nativity says the same. Our life is one piece and its length of much less importance than its purity and truthfulness. Around the image of Christ are the Greek characters giving his name, Jesus Christ, and in the halo the Greek letters “O” “W” and “N” initials of the phrase “I am who am” , the name God gave of himself to Moses on Mt Sinai thus presenting Jesus as truly God and truly man.
In the icon we see angels who are worshipping God-become-man. Though we ourselves are rarely aware of the presence of angels, they are deeply enmeshed in our history and we know some of them by name. This momentous event is for them as well as for us. In Sister Aloysius’ work, the angels on the left are a choir, praising God while those on the right are engaged in ministry, their hands covered in reverence for the Sacred One to whom they minister. One of the angels on the right leans down to announce the Good News to the shepherds.
Then there are the shepherds. Throughout history it has in fact been the simple people who have been most uncompromising in their response to the Gospel, who have not buried God in footnotes. Not the wise men but the shepherds were permitted to hear the choir of angels singing God’s praise. They are close to the cave, sharing the poverty and the powerlessness of Christ. They come as they are; in their working clothes, with the “tools of their trade” their sheep and their music.
Included on the left of the icon are the three wise men. Their close attention to activity in the heavens made them come on pilgrimage to pay homage to a king who belongs, not to one people, but to all people, not to one age, but to all ages. They represent the world beyond Judaism. They are represented as small figures because they are far away from the Nativity scene. They are in complete contrast to the shepherds; their journey is longer and more arduous, they come in horseback -a sign of power, and come dressed in their finery as kings. Their learning and their power are no advantage.
On the bottom right of the icon often there are two midwives washing the new-born infant Jesus. The detail is based on apocryphal texts concerning Joseph’s arrangements for the birth. Those who know the Old Testament will recall the disobedience of midwives to the Egyptian pharaoh; thanks to one of them, Moses was not murdered at birth, but grew to be the one to lead his people from slavery to freedom. Moses prefigures Jesus, who leads us from sin and death to the glorious freedom of the children of God. In the Nativity icon the midwives’ presence has another important function; they underscore Christ’s full participation in human nature.
The iconographic portrayal of Christ’s birth is not without radical social implications. Christ’s birth occurred where it did, we are told, by Matthew, “because there was no room in the inn.” He who welcomes all is himself unwelcome. From the first moment, he is something like a refugee, as indeed he soon will be in the very strict sense of the word, in Egypt with Mary and Joseph, at a safe distance from the murderous Herod. Later in life he will say to his followers, revealing the criteria of salvation, “I was homeless and you took me in.” We are saved not by our achievements but by our participation in the mercy of God -God’s hospitality. If we turn our backs on the homeless and those without the necessities of life, we will end up with nothing more than ideas and slogans and be lost in the icon’s starless cave.
We return at the end to the two figures at the heart of the icon. Mary, fulfilling Eve’s destiny, has given birth to Jesus Christ, a child who is God incarnate, a child in whom each of us finds our true self, a child who is the measure of all things. This is not the Messiah the Jews of those days expected- or the God we Christians of the modern world were expecting either. God, whom we often refer to as all-mighty, reveals himself in poverty and vulnerability. Christmas is a revelation of the self-emptying love of God.
FOR PASTORAL COUNCILS
The shepherds not only care for the flock. One listens to the Good News proclaimed by the angel. His feet are on the ground. He holds in his hand one of the tools of his trade, his crook. The shepherds gather the flock (music) and lead them to good pasture (psalm 22) and water (The Living Water) which nourishes the soul (like a deer that yearns). The running water produces good fruit (red fruit) (pomegranates – symbol of fertility and life).
Christ is in the midst of a swirl of activity: the angels, all busy and doing; the three Magi riding and following the star; the shepherds listening and watching; the mid-wives busy being handy-women; the devil is busy too; Joseph has a lot on his mind; Mary is concerned and reaching out to Joseph and pointing to Jesus. They’re all busy except Christ. He is the light in the darkness. He seems to float in the darkness – over the darkness. He is not overcome by the darkness. He is content to BE – just for now. His resurrection is already with him. He is the victorious Prince of Peace. He is the beloved Son of God. Sometimes our council is like Christ – like a coiled spring – ready to go. It’s as if Christ in the icon were saying “just you wait ’til I grow up ’til I show you BUSY”. In the quietness of the prayer-time we’re waiting like Christ, for “the time” – time to do, time to talk, time to provoke someone.
Our council is also like Our Lady in the icon. In our humanity, we’re related to Christ on His mother’s side. Mary is Mother of the Church. In being Church we resemble her. We’re reaching out a hand to those who are oppressed, downtrodden, disheartened, disillusioned, under assault from the devil. While at the same time we’re also pointing to Christ and wanting our people to be close to Christ; to find Him as their rock, their saviour. We act like a bridge from darkness to light; from death to life. We rest on a blanket of red – the colour of life. We’re rooted and secure in the life of Christ, relying on the life of grace. Although we feel the sword of sorrow, we really have nothing to worry about – victory is ours, with Our Lady of Victories. We in Nativity Parish are joyful as we face our responsibilities in Poleglass.
Our Lady’s attention is on Joseph, not on the Devil. She’s aware of his presence as we are aware of the evil around us in Poleglass. Sometimes this evil frustrates us, wears us down, and makes us think, “why bother”. But like Mary, we should rest in the power of The Lord and confidently reach out a helping hand, a caring word, and a prayer to those who labour and walk in the darkness of the shadow of death.