In the Ending of the Year
Listen on Spotify:
Listen on Mixcloud:
Listen on Youtube:
… but, preferably, read it below:
The time for Christmas has arrived and we have a little bit of everything these days: from consumerist hysteria to outbursts of sentimentalism, ending up, of course, in standard post-modern cynicism.
There are also a lot of memes abroad, recurring every year, about how Christmas is just a Christianized pagan festival. This is not something new either. Even in the times of Augustine, we read such a statement made by a heretic – Faustus the Manichean – against whom Augustine wrote a treaty (Contra Faustum). Such has also been the belief of Puritans for centuries and even today we have many examples in the Protestant world of congregations which do not celebrate Christmas, and not even Easter for that matter. It seems that that modern atheists and neo-pagans are in good company with all sorts of sectarians from the Christian world – both new and old.
So although initially only wanting to write a piece about the Orthodox Nativity icon, I will address other aspects related to this Feast as well, as a sort of a personal Christmas card sent to readers of Kali Tribune. The interpretation of the icon is the last section of this article; before it we dwell on questions of history, symbolism and a host of other topics, all related to Christmas, of course.
The date of Christmas from a historical point of view
I have recently listened to this short excerpt from a sermon on historical evidence in favor of December as the correct birth of Jesus Christ, with reference to a homily of St. John Chrysostom. We are not going to repeat what is said there- the reader is encouraged to listen to it- we can just say that it is a quite apt refutation of the usual argument we often hear- that Christ was probably born in the summer because Luke relates the episode of the shepherds being out in the fields. The argument does not hold water when put to scrutiny and is itself just a singular piece of evidence which cannot constitute a solid base for a theory that Christ was born in some other season.
Of course, from the strictly historical point of view – based on the empirical evidence that have survived to the modern age – we cannot point towards any particular date as being the date of Nativity, but as Father Panayiotis in that video suggests, the recourse to Tradition is a lot more sound and reasonable than any theory born out of all sorts of modern pre-and-misconceptions.
We mention these aspects briefly, because people in our day and age are very sensitive to historical evidence and like to see stumbling blocks such as these moved out of the way before going further in-depth.
Solar symbolism and the natural order as symbol
Now that St John Chrysostom has enlightened us with regard to the historical and chronological question, let us move a little further, towards the symbolism of the Feast and of the date on which this Feast is celebrated. Of course, as mentioned previously, there is no shortage of memes today that like to “remind” us that Christmas is just a rip-off of pagan festivals and the only reason why it is celebrated in December is the political agenda of the Church and the Christianized Roman Emperors that tried to suppress the older pagan religions- because for the modern mind everything begins and ends with politics.
Yet, a contemporary of St John Chrysostom – which is St Gregory of Nyssa- refers explicitly to the date of the Nativity as representing, from a spiritual perspective, what the December solstice represents from a natural one. In his own Homily for the Feast of the Nativity, St Gregory describes the birth of Christ as taking place in the middle of the spiritual night, marking the beginning of the journey towards light.
In this way, the ancient religions were entirely correct to celebrate various feasts on various dates corresponding to the yearly cycle- like those associated with the winter solstice. This is not solely because of naturalistic reasons- like the extended period of darkness in a time when there was no electricity – but because of an inner sense for the sacred in nature, an inner sense which, until the modern period, all peoples and civilizations possessed to one degree or another, but which we, on the whole, have completely lost today. This intuition of the mystery behind and within visible phenomena is also an awareness of the symbolic nature of the whole of reality which we experience – both outside us and within us.
Though rightly rejecting the treatment of cosmic phenomena (regardless of degree) as ends in themselves or as co-essential with Divinity, traditional Orthodox Christian understanding certainly has a room for what it calls “natural contemplation”, not natural in the sense of being effected through natural, empirical means, but in the sense that it contemplates (through the noetic faculty) the reasons (essences) within the cosmos and follows them to their transcendent Source.
In order to understand why between the Christian Feast and the ancient festivals there is both a continuity and a discontinuity (as there is between the Church and the ancient Synagogue) we need to consider two things.
First, we understand that visible phenomena have been created in order to: “to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years[…] And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.” (Gen. 1:14-18). While before the visible phenomena which are for signs, we see that “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.” (Gen. 1:5)
So the day and the night which are caused by natural phenomena (such as rotation of the Earth etc.) are just the visible manifestation, the symbol of deeper, unseen forces and phenomena present within the cosmos.
If we take the swastika as as symbol of movement around a center (as in the image below), we immediately see that the daily cycle is contained within the larger, yearly cycle, which reflects itself into the former.
If we understand this symbol, we see that from the motionless center spring – in a cruciform manner- the vertical and horizontal lines which qualify space (like the four rivers of Eden) and provide the possibility of movement. Time is intuited through this movement in space. The vertical axis governs the ascending and the descending cycles, while the horizontal line divides day from night. Thus, the two solstices are of a more essential character than the equinoxes, in that they correspond to the points in which movement receives a qualitative change of direction. The equinoxes (as well as their daily correspondents) serve to reveal the tendency which has been at work (in a hidden manner) for some time, but which went unnoticed up to a point.
The winter solstice and midnight are considered the luminous points of their respective cycles, while the opposite goes for summer and noon. Although from a static point of view, high noon represents the supreme victory of light over darkness, the fullness of revelation, from a dynamic point of view, things are considered otherwise: namely, when we consider these cycles as they manifest within the cosmos, we know that movement is always permanent and that there is no rest for movement, as long as the cosmos is ongoing. For this reason, although midnight is the lowest point in the cycle, it is also the point in which the downward direction is reversed and the ascending movement begins, thus it constitutes the seed, the principle of the whole ascending cycle. It is for this reason that the Vedas name it the beginning of the Devayana – the path of the gods.
From another perspective – we can say that midnight (and its yearly counterpart) is the inner sanctuary within which shines the hidden light on which the whole world depends, while midday is the externalizing of this inner light into visible phenomena. From an empirical perspective, midday is the point of utmost light, while midnight of utmost darkness. But from a mystical, inner perspective, midday is darkness, because the Logos is concealed and spread throughout a multiplicity of external things.
This complementarity, as well as reversal of perspectives from inner to outer is splendidly symbolized by the Taoist Yin-Yang symbol. It also reveals a negative aspect (which falls under Solomon’s “all is vanity” indictment) of the world regarded as a closed system: namely, on this plane which we inhabit, there is no escape from duality. Moving towards one extreme immediately gives birth to its opposite and this motion from one pole to the other is perpetual with no possibility of escape, the only exit being upwards.
If we take this symbolism and we apply it to both our lives and history as a whole in general, we will immediately see it manifesting everywhere. Our life as a whole bears witness to these workings: the moment of conception is the seed which contains the totality of our being, that it is the entire range of possibilities which can become developed throughout the course of our lives- corporeal, psychical, spiritual. Birth corresponds to revealing, making manifest what has been developing in the womb; the fullness of this development corresponds to the age of maturity which is high noon- what was once a potentiality is now fully manifested (from a corporeal perspective, at least); but once this fullness has been reached, the decline gradually begins, which accelerates near sunset, which, of course, is death. The darkness of the womb has its analogy at the other end – the darkness of the grave. One is the night of potentiality, the other the night of decay.
Some lives are like summer- very long – others, like winter.
In history as well, we see how civilizations develop in a similar manner. The point of departure is equally hidden both to other people living at the time, as well as to later historians, who are never really able to pin-point exactly what constituted the main thrust for the rise of this or that civilization, or when can it be said to have really started. It then makes its appearance on the world stage and reaches its climax in both territorial expansion as well as in its outer forms – such as institutions, art, influence etc. This peak of development is nothing other than the outward manifestation of the mysterious energies that were gathered in that particular people or area at the time of their initial stages of development.
Yet, this full externalizing of these previously inner forms leads to a corresponding emptiness inside, as if the forces which were a main drive for the civilization in question have completely become identified with their outward appearances and there is no vital force left inside – from this the gradual decline and the collapse in the end follow.
So the Nativity of our Lord at the winter solstice is at once a revelation and a fulfillment of this natural symbolism as we shall explain fully below. In the darkest of nights, at the lowest point possible, the Son of God assumes the fallen creation and the cycle is reversed. Theophany (the Baptism, when Jesus becomes known to the world) announces the return of the light, which fully rises and shines in the glorious Resurrection (spring).
Shadows and icons
Now that we have understood the significance of symbolism and that the celebration of Christmas at the winter solstice (as was calculated in Antiquity) is not something accidental, nor political, we must now take a look at the second aspect alluded to above, which now concerns the discontinuity between Christian and pagan feasts.
In order to better understand the whole significance of this Feast and what it reveals, we need to make recourse to
another very important Feast, which is celebrated especially in the Orthodox Church – that of the Transfiguration.
According to St. Maximos the Confessor, the shinning forth of God’s uncreated light at the moment of Christ’s Transfiguration is an ultimate revelation of all created reality as well as the opening of the possibility of contemplation of He who is beyond creation. St Maximos interprets (see Ambigua, section 48 and all the subsequent sections) Christ’s radiant face as being a symbol of mystical, apophatic theology, a revelation of God to the extent it is possible for created beings to comprehend Him. Christ’s shinning, white garments are interpreted to be the created cosmos as place for the manifestation and revelation of God’s works (read: energies)- hence cataphatic theology – as well as the revelation of the hidden essences (logoi) of all things which exist.
Moses and Elijah, beyond their usual interpretation as symbolizing the Law and the Prophets are interpreted in various ways by St. Maximos, as various complementaries or binaries, but this does not concern our purpose at the moment.
What is important in all of this is the Patristic understanding of Christ – as Logos– that is the transcendent Purpose of all that is, the Beginning and End of all there is and the Principle into which all partial aspects mentioned above are united.
In this way, the natural order, the law, the prophets, Scripture and everything else for that matter is ultimately and fully revealed only in this uncreated light of Christ and, when seen in this respect they become complementary modes of revelation, complementary and equally-worthy possibilities to understand something about God first of all and also about the nature and working of Providence and how it relates to every aspect of creation, as well as about our own nature and our higher purpose.
All things being revealed in Christ is a revelation which is not a partial point of view or a denominational peculiarity, but it is universal. In this sense, while Christianity is, according to the body, a religion among many others, in its inner essence it transcends every religion, being the presence of the Kingdom of God in this world. Should this sound doubtful in any way, we should remember that Christ Himself walked in this world as a man among the many other men of His time. Yet, as the icon of the Transfiguration above reveals, those who had eyes to see, saw God Himself when looking properly.
There is a well-known Patristic maxim, that the Old Testament is the shadow, the New Testament is the icon of things to come. This comes directly from St Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, where he characterizes the rites of the Old Law as sketches and shadows of what was to come with Christ’s incarnation. In this understanding, the New Testament is an icon in the sense that it provides the possibility of a direct participation in the reality of the Eternal Kingdom, in the light of which everything is revealed.
What does it mean, though, that the Law, the Prophets, as well as the natural order are shadows and sketches?
We, first of all, say that there are three modes of experiencing the world. To this correspond three modes of understanding the Law, the prophets and the natural order.
The first is the lowest state one can reach – the situation where one is mired in sin and passions. In such a state, the whole world is seen only in reference to one’s outer self- which is the ego- and its self-centered desires. This state is contrary to nature and those who are mired in it don’t intuit any order behind natural phenomena; they are rarely noticed – if ever- and everything is ascribed to hazard and randomness. Every form of law is seen as oppressive and a tyrannical attempt to limit one’s freedom and absolute “right” to engage in whatever hedonistic pleasure one desires. No prophecy is ever heard in such a state- or if heard, it is also ascribed to some kind of plot in the service of said “tyrannical law”.
This state of alienation corresponds to what is prevalent in today’s world.
The second mode is the one corresponding to the “natural” state, though natural only in relation to the fallen state of man. Here the natural order is seen and experienced in its outward functions, like in relation to the seasons, the times of sowing and of harvesting, the breeding of animals and- in human affairs- the standard natural stages of life.
The Law is seen as a safety net designed to limit the negative effects of the Fall and to keep social life and human relations in balance and within relative sanity. The highest good conceived is a good and virtuous life in this world and what is most feared is the changing of fortunes (tyche/fortuna), this fear constantly showing up in the writings of many of the ancient writers. Prophecies here are interpreted as a judgment on the present social and political state as well as warnings or hopes regarding future historical events – such as political liberation or enslavement.
This mode of being in the world is limited to the social level and is constantly in danger of being overturned by the sub-natural once the deeper meanings of the natural laws that govern society are no longer understood; they may even turn into a fanatical phariseism that sees the external observance of laws and a good social position as ends in themselves.
The third mode of experiencing the world can be called noetic in the sense that it sees the natural order and the sacred laws of society in their deeper aspects – for example, as we saw above – natural phenomena regarded as symbols that give insight into the nature of reality; the same for the revealed Law – one sees that there is a deeper reason behind certain regulations which goes beyond the social and political and is directly connected with the way in which things have been created and subsist. Such an understanding is present within all major religions around the world in what they have best, as well as in ancient Judaism and Greek philosophy.
Yet, although there is clearly a great difference between the complete opacity of the first mode and the relative luminosity of the third, without a supreme purpose and especially without the possibility to attain it, to unite one’s self to it, even the deepest knowledge one can attain in this world is doomed to futility and falls under the Ecclesiast’s indictment- knowledge as much as every other aspect of human existence. Indeed, knowledge seems only to “increase sorrow” (Ecl 1:18).
So all of the above falls into the category of shadows (except the first, which is total blindness), because they either intuit the good in natural and social harmony or even understand the hidden reasons behind this good, yet are unable to see and participate in the supreme Purpose behind it all. They do not lead beyond the cosmos – and all within the cosmos is subjected to change and instability.
The supreme Purpose is, thus, revealed only in Christ and it is only with Him that the natural order, the Law and the Prophets find ultimate fulfillment and it is to Him that all symbols – both in nature and in divine Revelation- lead.
So Christ’s primary role in this world is not to impart a new moral teaching, but to impart Life and to open the possibility for created beings to participate in the Uncreated, by uniting created existence – down to the lowest level- with Himself; as such every symbol becomes illuminated and becomes a support for the seeing and participation in this Reality.
The liberation of the Jews from Egypt is no longer regarded only as a historical event, relevant just for a particular people at a particular time, but is revealed in its deeper, universal meaning as a symbol of the liberation of the soul from the yoke of death – just like the sunrise can be now regarded as a foretaste of the Resurrection to come, provided one’s eyes are open to follow the symbol to its ultimate meaning.
The shadows thus become icons, through which direct experience and participation to the Eternal Kingdom is possible. A truly Christian life is a life in which everything becomes transformed in the light of Christ.
What is important to understand is that this transfiguration, this passing from shadow to icon, does not deny nor destroy this diversity of the things it transforms, nor does it superimpose upon them a meaning they did not have, but it reveals their true and ultimate meaning, preserving their individual identity – even confirming it.
We see in the below image how the seemingly blind forces of fate are revealed to be ultimately ruled by God’s providence, nothing being outside it. It is just like in Boethius’ Consolation, the personified Philosophia gradually reveals what in the beginning seemed to its author as blind hazard, as actually being the first natural fate in which there is order and harmony and, ultimately, as the means through which Providence governs the world and leads everyone and everything towards the supreme Good, while also confirming each one’s liberty of action. (see Consolation of Philosophy, book 4).
The Feast of Nativity in the Orthodox Liturgical tradition
In the Orthodox Church we could say that the Feasts of Nativity, Theophany (Baptism of Christ- 6th of January) and Pascha (Resurrection) constitute the triangle within which the rest of the liturgical year is contained- with the Resurrection being the apex.
This is because all three of these Feasts are related, the Nativity and the Theophany being pre-figurations for Pascha, as we see in the three icons below:
All three icons tell the story of the descent: the ultimate meaning of the first two- the descent into the dark cave and the chaotic waters- is revealed in the third, in the descent into Hell (Hades), which makes Nativity and Theophany a virtual realization of Pascha, just as in every Christian’s baptism the seed is planted, which is to be actualized throughout the course of a lifetime.
For this reason, the Nativity and Theophany (which in the early centuries were celebrated on the same day) have an identical liturgical structure as that of Pascha. This is obvious especially on the eve’s of Theophany and Nativity which are similar to Holy Friday and Saturday (here conflated into one day) from the point of view of the services appointed for these days. In the early Church, these three days were the main designated for the baptism of catechumens and I have heard that in areas where Orthodoxy is a new comer- like America- Holy Saturday still serves this purpose.
Let’s now take a look at the icon for this Feast – and it is one of my favorites- which has a depth and richness of symbolism which cannot be exhausted in words.
As a word of caution: when I say left or right I am always referring to the point of view of the icon, not the viewer, in keeping with the reverse perspective technique used in iconography: meaning that lines from the icon converge upon the viewer, not the other way around- in short, you are not looking at the icon, the icon is looking at you. Secondly, since in the center of icon is none other than the Logos incarnate, it is always right that we orient ourselves from His perspective.
In the center of the image we have Christ in the cave, with His Mother beside Him and the ox and the donkey behind. The mountain symbolizes the cosmos; it is shown as being barren, with almost no vegetation as an image of the fallen world which is subjected to futility (Romans 8:20) because of the Fall and the all-consuming death. Christ is shown as if wrapped in burial shrouds. According to tradition, the virgin Mary took burial shrouds when beginning the journey from Galilee to Bethlehem, fearing that Joseph – an old man- might not survive the trip. However, the deeper meaning of this is, of course, as we said above, the pre-figuration of His death and descent into Hades. The cradle itself is in the shape of a tomb; the dark cave is also a symbol for the underworld, the center of the earth where darkness reigns, the hidden place beneath the surface. Christ’s birth into the world is, practically, the virtual fulfillment of His mission on Golgotha. The Beginning is revealed in the End and vice-versa, both being one and the same thing, seen from different perspectives.
A ray of light from the star above shines upon the Child – it is from the Star which guided the three magi. It is not a natural star, visible to everyone, but a subtle light which only a few chosen can see. The star is a symbol of God’s presence, both transcendent and immanent. The star is dark on the inside – symbolizing God’s unknowable being – but bright on the outside- symbolizing God’s uncreated energies by which He makes Himself known to the world. The vertical ray shining upon the Child is God’s testifying that this is truly One of the Three, the Son of God.
Back to the cave: the Mother of God (Theotokos) stands near her Child. Sometimes, like in the first icon on the left, she holds her arms in the form of a cross. This is both an intuition of the Mystery of her Child’s purpose in this world and a reference to the prophecy of Simon in the temple (Luke 2:35) that “a sword shall pierce her heart”, referring to a direct, ontological (and not sentimental) participation in Christ’s crucifixion.
The ox and the donkey refer to a law in Deuteronomy (22:10), which forbids the plowing of the field with a donkey and an ox yoked together. The donkey is an unclean animal in the old Law, hence this particular law can be taken as a symbol of a multitude of things. In this case, however, it is a symbol of Israel and the gentiles – the old Law prevented the Israelites to mix with other people – who were invariably considered impure. With the birth of Christ, this law is abolished and through Him unity is established, as St. Paul says in Galatians (3:28).
The same image of the two animals seems to also refer to a verse from Isaia : “The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel has not known me, and my people have not understood.” Maybe the presence of the two animals near Christ (no other human is present except for the Theotokos) is a reference to a primordial innocence which is still present in the animals, but which almost all human beings lost completely – this latter is just a speculation on my part, though.
In the upper register of the icon we see a group of angels, the ones mentioned in the second chapter of Luke, who revealed what was going on to the shepherds. The group on the right sing praises to God, while the single angel on the left (according to tradition, Gabriel himself) delivers the revelation to the shepherds. In some icons he is shown handing them down seeds, which is significant from many points of view as we shall see.
In the middle register we have the shepherds on the left. They represent the nation of Israel. On the opposite side, we see the three magi coming from the East under the guidance of the mysterious Star that appeared to them. They represent the (pagan) nations. The Israeli shepherds receive a relatively more direct revelation from the angels, a reference also to the old Law which, in the New Testament, is said multiple times to have been delivered through angelic mediation (Heb. 2:2-3; Acts 7:38,53; Gal. 3:19), making it ultimately indirect and not an end in itself. Indeed, the shepherds must also go to the cave nearby to see the End (meaning Purpose) of the Law. The three magi come from Persia and come to know God through natural contemplation – a more difficult path, this is way it is said that they came from far away. Like the Israelis come to know the End of the Law, they come to know the End and Purpose of the natural law and see beyond it. This means that cosmological knowledge and natural sciences (in a broader meaning than understood today, but even the science of today divested from materialist ideology), when used properly, can lead one to the intuition of what is beyond the cosmos and what cannot be the object of any science- remember that the Star guiding them is not an ordinary star whose movements can be predicted by the astrological arts in which the magi were versed.
As an aside: we can note that the Zoroastrians also had certain prophecies about a messianic figure- Saoshyant. Perhaps the fact that the three foreigners were Persians is related to this fact.
Moving to the lower register of the icon we find two images from two apocryphal texts- the so-called Proto-Evangelion of St. James and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. On the lower right we see a troubled Joseph pondering the events which were happening- in the first chapter of Matthew we learn that Joseph did not believe in the virgin conception until an angel revealed it to him.
The strange figure speaking to him is a shepherd called Thyrreos, who is actually Satan appearing as a shepherd. What is this wolf in shepherd’s clothing whispering to Joseph? “Just like this staff cannot bud, so a virgin cannot conceive a child”. But in that moment his staff budded, proving his lie. (I have reproduced this episode from memory, I cannot locate the source, unfortunately).
The devil-shepherd is shown holding a staff in his hand and this staff is usually either bent or broken. The staff is a symbol of power, in this case his power as “ruler/prince of this world”.
The bent staff is either a reference to his tyrannical, unjust rule, or a sign that, with the birth of the Son of God, his power is in decline. The broken staff offers a more clear image of this power which has been broken.
On the lower left we have two midwives- Salome and Zelemi- also mentioned in the Proto-Evangelion and in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew- who are washing Jesus.
Why were scenes from apocryphal texts introduced? First of all, these texts are not of the gnostic, heretical kind, but are more like dramatic illustrations of some aspects of holy Tradition. The Gospel of Jacob, for example, is referenced and cited by many Church Fathers. They should be considered more in the line of texts such as “The shepherd of Hermas”, which though they are not part of the canon, can still be useful readings (provided one uses discernment).
Secondly, both of these scenes here illustrate something essential, both about the human condition and about the Incarnation. We know from Scripture that Joseph initially doubted Mary’s integrity, hence this scene is an illustration of this doubt and- more universally- it is a reference to the inability of the human mind to grasp these mysteries as long as it attempts to contemplate them from the bi-dimensional plane of this world.
The scene with the midwives and the bath shows the Son of God as the Son of Man. In the cave, in the center of the icon, the Divine nature is more preeminent than the human. Here, by participating in average, every day human activities- such as being washed- His human nature is also revealed.
The icon can also be interpreted as an image of the world and of the inner constitution of man. The three levels in the icon correspond to the three cosmic levels- the corporeal, the psychical and the intelligible. Christ in the center is the one measure of leaven in the three measures of flour (Matt. 13:33). The three levels correspond to the body, soul and nous in each person.
Joseph tempted by the devil symbolizes the mind which identifies itself with the bodily thought, vainly trying to understand through discursive reasoning that which can only be understood in unity. Hence, he becomes subjected to demonic attacks.
The three magi symbolize the soul engaged in natural contemplation. The two shepherds symbolize ascesis and illumination. We usually see one of the shepherds playing a pipe or a flute and gathering the sheep around him; this is a symbol of silent prayer and “guarding of the heart, through which one seeks to unify his disordered mind by gathering the thoughts like the shepherd gathers a flock of sheep, not letting them run wild all around the place and losing them to intelligible wolves who would devour them. The second shepherd, which is higher up the mountain symbolizes the soul receiving the seeds of revelation- this is Grace at the end of the ascetical struggle.
The angels symbolize the higher faculties – the nous in its double function: as organ for receiving the light/grace God and as the eye of the soul which, when clean and properly performing its first function, “illuminates the whole soul”- as symbolized by the angel making the announcement to the shepherds.
The cave in the center of the mountain is the center of the cosmos, as well as an image of the heart, the center of each individual man. Christ is born at the winter solstice, at midnight, in the middle of the darkened place which is the world as well as the heart of each person who, like the Theotokos, pronounces the new Fiat: “Be it unto me according to your word” (Lk 1:38), thus realizing the divine-human synergy.
When we now look at the icon as a whole, we are struck by the strong antithesis between the silent rest- the stasis- in the center and the movement, the intense activity taking place all around and in which every other character in the icon is engaged- including the angels at the top. Each of these activities converge towards the center, towards the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle, which is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.
Of all Orthodox iconography, this particular icon most of all reveals the nature of Christ as Logos – that is ruler and purpose of all creation. Everything in this icon, the activity of each of the other characters is only intelligible in relation to and pointed towards Him. Were one to remove the Child in the cradle in the center of the image, everything else in it would lose all meaning and would become unintelligible, all would be reduced to nothing. Even the devil’s destructive activity would have no meaning if it weren’t for the One he is trying to deny. This is why even the most ardent atheist or nihilist presupposes God in his very denial.
Christ is both on the circumference, participating in movement – being washed by the midwives in the scene below – as well as in the Center, above and beyond movement. As already said, to the eyes of the flesh He appears as just a man among all the others. To the eyes of the heart, He is the creator of the universe. By being both in the center and in the periphery, he unites and reconciles all in Himself- the intelligible and the corporeal, the Israelis and the nations and – most of all – the created and the Uncreated.
The icon does not reproduce the Event in its empirical details – that is, it does not offer an empirical picture, as would have been seen by an eye-witness at that moment in time. Rather, it displays such an Event from the point of view of eternity – it is not chronos, but Kairos, the eternal Present. The icon represents an event which took place in a particular time and in a particular place, but it reveals its hidden, archetypal meaning. It does not limit itself to that which can be seen, but neither is it concerned only with that which cannot be seen- rather it shows the Unseen in that which is seen.
The Scriptures do likewise, as the maxim of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Niceea, 787) can be used both ways: “The icons do with colors what the Scriptures do with words.”
And this is the Christian faith and everything around it has to do with what is revealed in this icon. Without this revelation, nothing else has any meaning- neither the family meals and reunions, nor the gifts, nor the carols, nor the sentiments, nor the joy, nor the shopping, nor myself approaching the 10th page of an article I intended as only 4-5 pages long.
So merry Christmas and God bless you all!