An Audio Version of the Bishop’s Message can be heard here:
The portrait of Christmas centres around the nativity story in the gospels. Over the centuries, the story is told afresh to each generation, through art, music and drama. Certain parts of the story are embellished to provide a moral commentary, such as the poverty of Jesus being emphasised as well as his cold reception into the world.
Looking at the Orthodox icon of the nativity, we are presented with a slightly different perspective. As you gaze at the icon, there are familiar people and scenes and yet things are not quite as we would recognise them. The icon is crowded with the various personal encounters of the birth, which is presented with layers of meaning. First and foremost, the icon shows Jesus born in a cave, being warmed by the breath of the cattle who intimately surround him in the deep darkness. The cave is situated within a hostile mountain, cruelly sharp and uninviting, depicting his cold welcome into the world. But Jesus is not alone. His mother looms large over him, offering maternal love and human adoration. Looking below, the Jesse tree speaks of the family of humankind blossoming into the fruit of Jesus. And to the right, following an ancient tradition, two women, a midwife and Salome, tend to the washing of Jesus.
I like this addition, because it shows us that Jesus is not alone and abandoned but cared for by women of the community. Maybe it’s a fanciful addition, but for me, it speaks of the strength of the kindness of humanity and suggests all is not lost. Basic instincts of compassion and support are evident in the village.
And then on the left is another vignette, this time of Joseph, away from Mary and Jesus. He is speaking to an old man, who may be the devil, who is filling his mind with doubt and confusion.
Despite its age and tradition, the Orthodox icon echoes some of our modern views about the birth of Jesus. There is a mixture of both acceptance and hostility by the creature and the creation. God knows it’s not going to be an easy ride. But the women give care and practical help to the helpless one. They are a measure of what is good in humanity and why God finds us so lovable.
In a time where in the West particularly, we are questioning and re-examining the authenticity of our faith, the hard conversation between Joseph and the old man echoes the world’s uncertainty about the truth of the incarnation. Can a human be God and God be human?
The beauty and the gentle reflection of the icon challenges us to look and look again. The truth gradually emerges at the cost of our attention. A child may understand, an adult may need to strive, but God’s beautiful and transcendent love can be grasped. The humility of Jesus invites us and we are welcome. Christmas arrives.
The most wise Lord comes to be born,
Receiving hospitality from His own creatures.
Let us also receive Him,
That this divine Child in the cave may make us His guests
In the paradise of delights!
With love and prayers during this blessed time,