The Birth of Christ is a celebration of joy. The fact that God became man and entered into our human life is seen in the Icon of the Nativity. Wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger is the Christ Child. All the details of the Icon relate to His presence in the World. This presence shines radically with the black opening of the cave in which He was born. This contrast is often seen in the Fathers’ writings in terms of the spiritual light of Christ’s birth radiating through the shadows of death encompassing man. The black mouth of the cave then symbolically, is precisely this fallen world in which the “Sun of Righteousness” has dawned, this wilderness which the “Light of Wisdom” has illumined. The Virgin Mother is shown half sitting, supported by a hammock- type bed used by the early Jews in their travels. Striking is the absence of the usual sufferings of childbirth which is iconographically seen to be an indication of the virgin-birth of Christ. As in the Gospel, all mankind is called to this event. The Wise men represent the learned and astute, and the shepherds represent the humble of this world. A multitude of Angels give glory to God and announce this good news to mankind.
In the Icon, several episodes are grouped together and shown simultaneously. In the bottom left corner, Joseph sits in painful thought, while the Satan under the guise of an old and bent shepherd suggests new doubts and suspicions to him. In the opposite corner, two women are seen bathing the New-born infant to show the real humanity of Jesus.
All of Creation takes part in the birth of the Savior. In the cave, the Infant lies guarded by an ox and a donkey. While the Gospels do not speak of them, all icons of the Nativity portray them because of the prophecy of Isaiah, An ox knows its owner and an ass its masters manger. (Is. 1:3) The Mountainside is a backdrop to the event. While it bears little correspondence to the terrain of Bethlehem in Judea, it parallels a line from the prayer of the prophet Habakkuk; “God comes from Teman, the Holy One from Mt. Paran. Covered are the heavens with His glory, and with His praise the earth is filled’ [Hab. 3:3] One final detail is the tree painted across from the image of Joseph included not only in its own right as an offering to Christ, but also as a symbol of the Tree of Jesse. In the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him:’ (Is. 11:1-2]
The icon of the Nativity calls us to praise and glorify the Birth of Christ and to offer unto Him our gifts as He is offered unto us as Gods Greatest Gift. Gazing upon the Miracle and Gift of Gods Incarnation I say, What shall I bring to You, O Christ, Who, for my sake, was born on earth as man? Humanity offers a Virgin Mother and I offer myself. Blessed is the Revelation of Christ.
Meaning of Epiphany-Theophany
The Feast of the Holy Theophany (Epiphany) of our Lord is celebrated each year on January 6. The Feast commemorates both the Birth and the Baptism of Christ and the divine revelation of the Holy Trinity. At the Baptism of Christ, all three Persons of the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—were made manifest. Thus, the name of the Feast is Epiphany, meaning manifestation, or Theophany, meaning manifestation of God.
The origins of the two feasts –Theophany and Epiphany – lie in the time of the Byzantine Empire, as evidenced by the Greek words that are used to describe them. The word “Theophany” (Theos – God; phainomai – to manifest) means “Manifestation of God”. The meaning of “Epiphany” (Epi – above; phainomai – to manifest) is “Manifestation from above”.
There was much confusion among Early Christians of East and West about when and how to acknowledge the various manifestations of God. The Early Church recognized four such manifestations, called The Four Manifestations, where the Lord appeared to mankind in glory and divinity. They are 1) The Nativity of Our Lord; 2) The Visit of the Magi; 3) The Baptism of Christ, and 4) The Miracle of the Wedding Feast of Cana (1).
Early, the Nativity and the Baptism of Christ were celebrated on January 6. Later the Nativity was moved to December 25 in an effort to accommodate and eventually replace the heathen festivals centered on the winter solstice. The Armenians still celebrate the Nativity and the Baptism of Christ on January 6 according to the ancient custom, while both East and West settled on December 25 as the date for the Nativity.
Fr. Shnork Souin