In the fifth and sixth centuries, pilgrims visited the Holy Land and brought back images of the crypt from the church that Constantine built in Bethlehem, which was believed to be centered around the very cave in which Jesus was born. Icons based on these images, painted by prayerful, anonymous artists, absorbed the biblical story of Luke and added details that became part of traditional celebrations of the feast. In a world where few could read and books were unavailable, St. Basil the Great pointed out that what the word transmits through the ear, painting silently shows through the image, and by these two means, mutually accompanying one another...we receive knowledge of the same thing.
What the Picture Reveals
Traditionally painted Nativity icons have continued to follow the form devised by these early artists. The icon is unified by the central figure of the baby lying in a dark cave cut into a stony mountain, with the many actors present at the scene or arriving later, grouped around him. A ray of light from a small piece of starry sky visible at the top of the icon streams down through this dark world directly onto the baby, who is wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a small manger. Such a short voyage for a god, reads a poem by Mary Karr, and you arrived in animal form so as not to scorch us with your glory. As if to emphasize the connection, the ox and ass who gaze at him in gentle companionship are even nearer to him than his mother. They are not mentioned in the Gospels, but they are essential to the church’s interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecy (1:3): An ox knows its owner, and an ass its master’s manger, but Israel does not know. My people has not understood.
Mary the mother lies just in front of the cave, her gaze turned away; like any human mother after giving birth, she is resting. Renaissance art and Christmas cards usually place her kneeling beside the crib robed, in most unrealistic fashion, in fine clothes. In these icons, both her central position just outside the dark cave and her somewhat larger size stress the true humanity of this child and Mary’s central role in binding the human and divine together.
Slightly below her on the right, a midwife bathes the baby, further emphasizing his fully human nature. But just as the narrow manger also hints of a future tomb, so does the midwife’s activity serve as a foretaste of his baptism to come. There are no midwives in Luke’s Gospel, but in many popular apocryphal stories from the earliest Christian centuries, St. Joseph sought them out to help the new mother, and midwives have become part of the traditional portrayal of Jesus’ birth.
Typically, at top left, heralding the child’s divinity, two angels announce the good tidings, while at top right an angel bends down toward Jesus, offering what appears to be a blanket. Just below that angel a shepherd plays his reed pipe, adding joyful human music to the angelic chorus. How often do we reflect on God’s choice of ordinary men at work to receive the first word of this birth? Neither political rulers, nor those well off, nor members of the Sanhedrin are admitted into the picture. Mary’s earlier Magnificat, spoken when she visited Elizabeth, boldly stating God’s preference for the poor, is visibly reinforced by God’s birth among them.
Parallel to the shepherd, the three Wise Men on the left side have already arrived to present the mother with gifts for the child to whom the star has led them. In some versions of the icon, the travelers arrive in small separate scenes, but when the picture gets too cluttered, the unity of meaning is diluted. Time and incident are condensed here, and the story is simple. This child has come to the Gentiles as well as the Jewsindeed, to the whole worldand the arrival of the Wise Men from the East emphasizes God’s acceptance of learning and science in the search for truth.
The Holy Couple
But to the left, opposite the midwife, we see an image of St. Joseph quite unknown in our art. Sometimes he is separated from Mary at the crib to indicate that he is not the father; here he is outside and dejected, his head leaning on one arm. A smooth, well-dressed shepherd often stands beside him. According to ancient tradition, this is the devil, trying to build on Joseph’s doubt, mentioned in Matthew, as to whether this child indeed comes from God. It is a temptation that has repeated itself throughout the history of Christianity in all who have wrestled with a reality that seems beyond reason, the incarnation of God in human flesh.
Mary looks at her husband compassionately. Viewers of the earliest Nativity icons were probably familiar with the arguments between Joseph and Mary that were popular topics of Syrian dialogue poems from the fourth to the seventh century. In antiquity believers wanted to know more about the life and characters of these figures, who were their heroes and central to their faith. In one of these dialogues Mary tries to explain her virginal conception to her disbelieving husband, but Joseph snaps at her: After getting pregnant, now you tell lies. Mary stands up to him, You have never seen any falsehood in me, but Joseph angrily persists until Mary finally wears him down. The misunderstanding between them, the iconographer suggests, has endured even after the birth of the child. If this is the case, Mary’s sad, loving gaze suggests concern for Joseph’s suffering rather than her need to convince him. Here, as in the Gospels and later tradition, she is a model of behavior for her fellow humans. Later generations will come to know her compassionate gaze well as it is turned on them in the many beautiful icons of the Mother of Tenderness.
Among Us in Danger
As this Christmas comes, we may be more aware than we used to be of the darkness our world shares with that of Mary, Joseph and the shepherds. God has come among us, and the risen Christ is still here; but bad news dominates our lives. Violence, famine and destruction are the daily bread of millions, who look at us with haunted eyes from the electronic icons in our living rooms. Even the lovely old Christmas carols cannot comfort us as they used to, for alongside our image of the little town of Bethlehem asleep beneath the silent stars, we know that the city today is subject to constant military threat.
But these ancient Nativity icons also remind us that the surroundings were dark when Jesus first came; Jesus suffered under Roman occupation all his life. Like the apostles, we might prefer a God who came as a powerful ruler, ready to heal, smite enemies and oversee the triumph of justice and joy in Palestine, Africa, Sri Lanka and Iraq. Instead we are reminded that Jesus came as a helpless baby among ordinary folk, not the rich and powerful. Unlike the usual Nativity scenes in our homes and churches, where statues of Mary, Joseph and the shepherds kneel reverently around a conscious, often pudgy baby, these ancient icons do not present a sentimental scene but one filled with danger. Herod will hear of this birth and send in his soldiers. Joseph and Mary will have to flee, becoming homeless refugees, and ultimately Jesus will be put to death.
Still, incredible as it may seem, the appearance of God’s son as a vulnerable human baby bringing light to our darkness suggests that the Creator wants human help in the ongoing work of creation. Just as Yahweh asked Moses to lead his people out of Egypt, and Mary to cooperate in the birth of his Son, we are being asked today to accept this shared responsibility.
On this Christmas we hasten to join the shepherds and midwives in the living icon that surrounds the cave. Instinctively we want, like the Wise Men, to bring gifts to those we love in order to celebrate this child’s coming; but we know they are just symbols, not the end. As for the animals, we may not have the understanding of who our owner is that was clear to the ox and ass any more than the Israelites did. By splitting off the spiritual so completely from the natural and physical, have we Christians not contributed to the exploitation of the earth? If I could give splendid gifts like the Magi, today I might give an ark from Heifer International, filled with animals, helping to provide a living for many families around the world. (Heifer International is a project started to relieve world hunger by giving people livestocka cow, goat or pigand training them to raise the animal as a source of food and the possibility of a livelihood rather than a meal or a bag of foodstuffs. Since 1944, the program has grown in scope and the number of families it serves.)
Do we hear the angels as the shepherds did in the ancient Nativity story? Perhaps not many with wings, but I have nonetheless encountered quite a number over the years serving as God’s messengers in human form. Whenever we find angelic service, whether in others or in our own inner inspirations, it is imperative that we heed their messages. For as we celebrate the beautiful feast of Christmas once again, we are reminded that the vulnerable child who came among us pleads for us to make the good news real today.