Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Nativity Icon

The intimate relationship of icon, ritual worship, and event of the feast is nowhere better illustrated than on Christmas. The icon of the Nativity of Christ shows in a remarkable way the special place the Orthodox Church assigns to icons. It portrays the whole scene of the Incarnation, its spiritual and theological dimension. If one were to see this icon and understand it, one would have a profound insight into the meaning of the Birth of the Lord.

The icon is crowded with figures and scenes, but each has a story to tell, each is involved with the Nativity. Occupying the central place is the new-born Child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, while the Mother, the Holy Virgin, reclines close by. they are in a dark cave, from which peaks jut into the sky. The light from heaven pierces the blackness. All this conveys an other-worldly character to the scene. The Incarnation involves two worlds- that of eternity and that of God and Man. And in the birth of Christ we have a fusion of those worlds, we have God becoming Man.

We see the God-Man in all His humility. He is born in a cave. Animals watch and wait upon Him silent wonder. He comes at night and the world is asleep to the awesomeness of the occasion. Still the newborn Child is the Lord of Creation. the heavens open and a star points its light at Him. The angels appear and sing out praises to God and Child. The shepherds, awed by the sight and sound of the night, cautiously approach the improvised cradle. Strange men of the East come, and kneeling before Him, offer Jesus the precious gifts they bear.

The Magi often translated as Wise Men are connected with the Three Wise Youths who refused to offer worship to idols in the Book of Daniel and were rescued from the fiery furnace that King Nebuchadnezzar had placed them in when they invoked the name of God. The Magi were considered priests of an eastern cult and practitioners of magic and astrology. The wealth of Damascus and the spoils of Samaria represented the sorcery and idol worship that the Magi gave up when they worshipped Jesus. Even their names have significant meaning. Balthazar a Greek corruption of the Babylonian name Belshazzar, familiar in the Book of Daniel which means: O Lord, protect the king". Melchior, is an Aramaic name which means, "The king is my light". Gaspar is a Roman corruption of Persian name for Gondophares, which means, "treasure bearer".

St. Irenaeus of Lyons alluded to the role of the Magi in the allegorical interpretation of their gifts. Gold because He was a king of an eternal kingdom, Frankincense, burnt on altars as divine offerings, because He was a High Priest and Myrrh, used for anointing corpses to indicate that He would die and be buried for the sake of mankind. Venerable Bede recorded in later tradition that the three Magi signified the three parts of the world- Africa, Asia and Europe and that they were thus linked with the sons of Noah, who fathered the three races of Earth.

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