This Advent and Christmas, pay attention to the symbols of this season, because there is a lot to be learnt through the traditional images we find at this time of year. Although, saying that, I wonder how many of you will send and receive cards with a depiction of the nativity, or if you and your loved ones will favour robins in the snow, or Santa?
One image that always makes its way onto my computer background is the Icon of the Nativity. For me this Orthodox image gives us a different angle to the traditional images, and it drips with symbolism to aid in our Advent preparations and our Christmas celebrations.
The background is dark and displays an inhospitable world, the world we’ve inhabited since our expulsion from Eden. A world we can recognise today in our media with the uncertainty of peace or safety for many people.
Christ is shown in the centre of the icon, with his mother Mary sitting in a cave that the earth has provided. The Creator of the universe is entering history as a new born baby, and his birth changes everything. Christ is a helpless figure, wrapped in strips of cloth, representing his complete submission to becoming human and sharing our life. His manger is like a coffin, and his cloths like grave cloths, reminding us that this child has been born to die. Into this world of darkness and danger, he comes to save us.
Among the joyful festivities of the birth of this child, there is a serious message; the Immanuel (עִמָּנוּאֵל) is here, Jesus, ‘God is with us’ has arrived but not all will recognise this. He is watched over by the ox and the ass. “The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1:3)
Mary, the Theotokos (God-bearer), is the largest and most dominant figure in the icon, lying back after giving birth. It was her “Yes” to the angel brings about the whole series of events and her faith in God that brings forth our salvation. She is a reminder to us that working for Christ is sometimes exhausting hard work, but worth it.
The Wise Men are on the left of the icon and the Shepherds on the right, and they show that Christ came for all, rich and poor, acceptable and unacceptable. The Wise Men on horseback, looking up to their guiding star, they represent not only the rich and wealthy, but they also bring politics into the story with their dealings with Herod. The shepherds are tending their sheep. One of the shepherd plays joyful music on a flute, while one of the sheep looks up to the angels above.
My favourite characters in this icon however are the angels, whose role here is to announce the good news, to praise and glorify God, and watch over the holy events below.