Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christ is Born!

“To us a Child is born, to us a Son is given…and his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). Heaven has opened and God has appeared on earth to take away the sins of the world and to lead us back to Paradise! The glory of the Lord shimmered across the night sky as angels announced the glad tidings—we must go see this wonder that has been proclaimed. Wise men sought Him to adore Him. A wicked king sought Him to kill Him, but no one stands in the way of God once his unalterable decree has been uttered! Let us gaze upon the mystery of the Word made flesh.

The icon of this feast has much to tell us, though for most modern people its symbolic “code” needs to be deciphered. One of the reasons (though perhaps not the main one) icons were created for the Church is so that people who could not read would still be able to understand the mysteries of the faith through iconographic presentations. Icons proclaim the Gospel in color and form.

The Light shining down from the top of the image is a symbol of the Divinity. Often the Divine Light is depicted by a three-layered “mandorla,” a circle or oval of glory, in which Christ in his glory is usually manifested. The light enters the dark cave, black being the symbol of death and of the moral/intellectual darkness of the world in its ignorance or rejection of God. His Light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it (John 1:5).

The first unusual thing that one might notice is that the Mother of God is facing away from her newborn child. You’d expect her to be holding and kissing and gazing upon Him, as was certainly true as historical fact, and as our liturgical texts often say. But there’s a dogmatic teaching in this iconographic symbol. It was often said in the Old Testament that man cannot see God and live. The message of Mary’s looking away: this Child is God. Thus the true and full divinity of Christ is proclaimed.

Down in the right corner of the icon we see midwives washing the Child after his birth (it’s not uncommon to have the same figures appear more than once in an icon—after all, it’s telling a story). This rather prosaic and earthy moment in the Child’s young life communicates another sacred and essential truth: He is not only true God but true Man as well. He didn’t miraculously descend from heaven with only the outward appearance of a man. He did it the hard way—conception, gestation, birth, for He was really a human Child, and He spared Himself nothing of what belongs to genuine humanity.

In the left corner we have another dogma of the Faith presented, in a quite novel fashion. St Joseph is sitting down, looking rather perplexed, while a bent old man is talking to him. The bent one is the devil, and the monologue went something like this: “Come on, Joe, get with it! She’s your wife, right? Well, she just had a baby, but did you have anything to do with it? So much for your faithful woman! You’ve been had!” The fact that St Joseph had to wonder about all this (and couldn’t go around saying, “Doesn’t He look just like me?”) proclaims this truth: the virgin birth.

The angels, shepherds and magi are present to fill in the story, but the main teaching of the icon of the Nativity is the true humanity and divinity of Christ, and the virginal conception and birth. As we venerate the icon, we say “yes” to what God has done for us through his Son. Jesus is the only Savior. Let us look with love upon Him who looks with love upon us. Christ is born! Glorify Him!