Thursday, December 5, 2019

Christmas Is What We Make It - Understanding the icon of the Incarnation (Nativity)

Awake! God is becoming man. He wants to show us the path to paradise.

When I look around me the signs of this season to not point to such a great event. The images that I found with a google search are mainly about Santa Clause, reindeer, Elves, presents, decorated trees, office parties... Seems like the season is all about this world’s pleasures. Where is Christ? What kind of Christmas will WE make?

To tell the truth, it seems like most us us are asleep spiritually. We enjoy Christmas time with all its celebrations. But in the midst of these God is distant from us, we are unaware of our sinfulness, we rarely pray, only attend church periodically out of duty, and only periodically participate in the sacrament when we do come, and many have never been to confession. Maybe the secular Christmas celebration fits us. Are we are making Christmas fit what we believe?

We all need to be awakened to the Truth!

What is Christmas all about? Are we celebrating the birth of a baby boy? No! We are celebrating the beginning of the way to our salvation. God becomes man, a human being who is also God! Christmas is about the Incarnation of our Lord, Savior, our Creator. God becomes man to show us our true potential created in His image and likeness. After His birth He lives with humility, heals, teaches and then is unjustly and voluntarily killed by Crucifixion, suffers, is  beaten, humiliated, and hung naked nailed to the Cross. His life and death was to show us our path to paradise. After His death He is resurrected, defeating death with His death. He then Ascends into Heaven and is seated at right hand of God. After teaching His disciples the mysteries sends the Holy Spirit empowering them to establish ecclesias, gatherings of believers, communities where they can grow spiritually. This all begins with the event we call Christmas. We are celebrating our very entrance into the pathway of our salvation.

The festival approacheth, the most to be revered, the most awesome, and which we might justly term the centre of all festivals,—that of the birth and manifestation of Christ in the flesh.
Saint John Chrysostom 

Let’s not be lulled to sleep with all the secular attachments that merchants have created to stimulate our shopping habits and desires. Our secular values have stripped the true meaning from all aspects of the activirties of this season.

How was Christmas celebrated traditionally?
It began with a fast, an inner period of reflection, preparing ourselves to become more worthy to receive the King. It was only after the Christmas Day that we celebrated, exchanged gifts, visited friends and relatives. This is the 12 days of Christmas which are fast free and set aside for celebration of this great event. Before this awesome day we are preparing to receive God as man and then, after His birth, to glorify His coming for our salvation. The celebration ends with another important celebration, Epiphany, the baptism of Christ and the beginning of His ministry.

Nativity Icon
To better understand this most significant event in the history of mankind let’s examine the icon that tells the story of the Incarnation. Not just the birth of Jesus the man, but the Incarnation of God! Looking at the icon it appears as a scene beyond time. The immediate focus is Mary, calling us to better understand her role. The scene is totally different than that portrayed in most western nativity scenes. Let’s explore it. It tells the entire story in one image.

There are eight parts to this icon: the birth place, the star, the mother of God—the Theotokos, Christ, Joseph and the devil, the Angels, shepherds, wise men,  and the midwives.

Let’s look at each of these in detail.

He is wrapped is swaddling cloths which is how a person was normally wrapped after birth. The infant was wrapped in a cloth that was four to five inches wide and five to six yards long. He would be wrapped like this for seven days and then cleansed and rewrapped, a process that lasted fourth days. They believed at that time that this would help the soft bones of the child grow straight. It is also similar to how a person is wrapped for burial after death. This symbolizes the destiny He faces like all of us, so He can show us the way to life beyond death. In HIs Resurrection He will show us how we too can claim victory over death with faith and following Him.
St Ephram the Syrian writes: His swaddling clothes gave a robe of glory to human beings.
Notice how the manger is not a traditional food trough for animals but appears as a tomb. This is intended to remind us that Christ came into the world to die for us and then show us victory over death in the Resurrection. 
The animals are an Ox and a donkey. This comes from a prophesy in the Old Testament in book of Isaiah: “The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his masters crib (Isaiah 1:3). They are show providing warmth to Jesus by their breath.

Birth place:  
The birth of God took place in dark cave shown in the center of the icon. When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem to pay their taxes they found no room in traditional lodging places. By God’s providence they found shelter in cave. In the area of Bethlehem caves were often used as places to shelter the animals. The cave also is a symbol of the coming of God as a human being to bring light into the darkness of our souls, our ignorance of our sinful condition, and to give light to the way out of darkness to eternal paradise. The fact that it was also a stable, also has important symbolism. You can see the animals looking at the Christ child. Where animals were kept was a smelly place, not a desirable place to stay, let alone give birth to a child, but this place was not chosen by chance because it shows the humility of Christ. He could have chosen to be born in a palace, but He was coming to show us that the way to paradise is based on humility. He is showing us that this needs to be an important value in our lives, to not seek riches or honors, or to be seen as better than others. 
“The Good Shepherd, He who lays down His life for His sheep, came to seek that which had strayed...He humbles Himself, that He may raise up with Himself the soul that was tottering to a fall under a weight of sin....[for] my perfection and return to the first condition of Adam.” Saint Gregory the Theologian, oration 38
The dark background in the cave can be explained by the birth of Christ being like the spiritual light that shines forth in the shadow of death that surrounds all mankind. The black mouth of the cave symbolizes the world filled with sin from the Fall of mankind, and with the the birth of the Savior, the “Son of righteousness,” it is now enlightened with a clear path to return to paradise.

Mary, The Theotokos:  
Notice how she is in the middle and focal point of the icon. Without her there would not be the Incarnation. All that follows would not have happened. She was especially prepared by God to be pure so she could give flesh to the Son of God. She is looking away to show her humility. This was a miraculous birth by a virgin through the work of the Holy Spirit.
“When God became known to us in the flesh, He neither received the passions of human nature, nor did the Virgin Mary suffer pain, nor was the Holy Spirit diminished in any way, nor was the power of the Most High set aside in any manner, and all this was because all was accomplished by the Holy Spirit. Thus the power of the Most High was not abased, and the child was born with no damage whatsoever to the mother’s virginity.” - St. Gregory of Nyssa

The Star:  
In the top center you can see a blue light which represents the star. This is the star that appeared in the East at the time of the Annunciation and led the wise men to Christ for about nine months. This was not a real star but the work of the Holy Spirit to show the way to Christ. It behaved differently than anything scientists have ever observed. It moved, it stopped, it ascended and descended, it changed direction. Some say it was Archangel Gabriel. Notice how it points directly to the Christ Child. Saint John Chrysostom says, “no natural star could have traversed such a course, nor could I have shone so brilliantly at midday; and, furthermore, it stood still over the Child.
In the icon it points directly to the cave. It is a long ray which connects part of a sphere that goes beyond the limits of the icon. This is a representation of the heavenly realm, signifying that the star and this ray are a messenger from the world on high.
 It brings our attention to Christ and indicates His divine nature.

Above Christ we can see a multitude of angels gathered to glorify the Incarnation. They have come also to herald the Good News of the birth of our Savior. This points out how this event is not just the birth of a child, but the Incarnation of God Himself. God has become man. Rejoice!

Even the shepherds came to glorify God. They were the first sons of Israel to come to worship the Christ Child. The shepherds watched over flocks of lambs destined for sacrificial services in this area where the birth took place. They are being told of the Incarnation by an angel. They were told: “ Be not afraid; for I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths elating in a manger” (Lk 2:10-12).The shepherds heard the angels singing: “Glory to God n the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill among men.” (Lk 2:14)
Shepherds are simple people. Their presence indicates that God came for all people and not just those who are privileged. There is one shepherd playing a reed flute showing that music is appropriate for glorifying God.

Wise men or Magi:  
There are also three men on horses. One is a beardless youth, another middle aged and the third an old man They are referred to as Magi or wise men, member of a Persian class of  priestly scholars who were very powerful among the Persians. They were occupied with the study of medicine, philosophy, natural sciences and scientific study of the stars. They believed there was a mystical influence of the stars on earthly things so they were constantly studying the heavens for new signs. They were aware of the prophecies of Daniel, especially the one concerning the time of the coming of Christ. (Dan 9:25,26). They were also familiar with Barlaam’s prophecy about the star shining forth from Jacob (Num 24:17). When this unusual bright star appeared to them they knew it was a sign of a great event. Recognizing its significance they vowed to follow it to the scene of the Incarnation. They followed the star “till it came to rest over where the young Child was (Mat 2:11)” with His mother.  They brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, as a way of giving thanks to God. In the hymn for the forefeast we find the following :”The kings, first fruits of the nations, bring three gifts, myrrh they point to Thy death, by gold to Thy royal power, by frankincense to the dignity of Thy divinity.” Gold is also know as a symbol of wisdom, frankincense as power of prayer as it is burnt before God and myrrh the mortification of the body.
These men came some time after the actual birth, about two years later. This is a characteristic of icons. They capture what is necessary to tell the whole story.
This scene also tells us by their example that all scientific study is meant to lead us toward the true God.

In the lower left we can seen the midwives preparing the bath water to bathe the new born child. This was done out of tradition as there was no blood in the birth. The bathing does not signify that Christ was unclean and in need of purification. This was done to show His true humanity. The two women are know as Zelomi and Salome. Salome is related to Mary. She is Mary’s mother’s sisters daughter, a first cousin. The duties of a midwife were washing the new born, rubbing it with salt, water and oil, and then wrapping it in swaddling bands.
This scene shows the full humanity of the Incarnate Son of God. Jesus was fully human in all regards except He was without sin. It is also symbolic of baptism which all members of His Church go through for spiritual cleansing of sins and a transformation with the Holy Spirit planted in their heart with Chrismation.

Joseph and the devil: 
In the lower right we have another scene with Joseph, an old man and another with a cane. Joseph is shown with a halo. He was an old man because he was of age when he was appointed to be the protector of Mary so she could live life as a virgin. He was probably 70-80 years old at this time. He is pondering this whole situation because he was not the biological father of the child. He is being tempted by the old man with the cane who is trying to raise doubts in his mind: How is it possible for a virgin to bear a child? This man is Satan, who is saying, “this is against all natural laws you fool!s!” The difficulty Joseph faced is no different from ourselves who have difficulty grasping the reality of the virgin birth and God becoming man while still retaining His divinity. The Incarnation of God goes beyond reason.
The tree you see to the left of Joseph is a symbol of the tree of Jesse. This refers to Isaiah  11:1-2, “But a shoot shall spout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him.” In the flesh, Jesus can trace his ancestry through His mother and adoptive father Joseph, all the way back to Jesse.

Adore the birth by which you were loosed from the chains of your birth (Luke 2:1-5), and honor little Bethlehem, which has led you back to Paradise.... With shepherds glorify Him; with angels join in chorus; with archangels sing hymns. Let this Festival be common to the powers upon earth. - St Gregory the Theologian

“It is on this day that, throughout the entire inhabited world, the Holy Church brings to our remembrance and observes that most majestic and sublime of mysteries: the Incarnation of God the Word from a Most-pure virgin through an outpouring of, and an overshadowing by, God's Holy Spirit. Wondrous, inexpressible, and awesome is this mystery, both for the exalted and all-contemplating celestial minds of those who dwell in the heavens: the ranks of the angels, – and for the minds of men, enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Imagine: the unoriginate God from Whom everything received the commencement of its existence: the Angels, and the human race, and the entire world, both visible and invisible, – takes a beginning in His humanity. He Whom the heavens cannot contain – is contained in a virginal womb. God – becomes an infant, and is borne upon the arms of a Mother. He Who nourishes every breath – is nourished by paps.”
Saint John of Konstradt

Make this Christmas to be about the Incarnation of God Himself as Jesus Christ.

Apolytikion: (Fourth Tone)
Your birth, O Christ our God, dawned the light of knowledge upon the earth. For by Your birth those who adored stars, were taught by a star, to worship You, the Sun of Justice and to know You, Orient from on High. O Lord, glory to You.

Kontakion: (Third Tone)
Today, the Virgin bears Him who is transcendent, and the earth presents the cave to Him who is beyond reach. Angels, along with shepherds glorify Him. The Magi make their way to Him by a star. For a new child has been born for us, the God before all ages.

Reference: The icon used can be obtained from the Orthodox Monastery Store, made by the nuns of the Paracletos Greek Orthodox Monastery in Abbeville, SC

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.