Pondering the Nativity Icon

[Note to readers: I was really struggling with cropping images in WordPress, so I gave up. I apologize that I was not able to include more close-ups. But you can search for an icon of the Nativity of Our Lord on your device to see these things.]

We’re past the midpoint of the Nativity fast, and I’m enjoying the twinkle lights while fasting from certain foods with varying levels of success. Increasing my time in prayer is . . . well . . . Let’s move on.

As always, ascesis is a struggle.

As an Orthodox Christian, besides the practice of fasting—which no one else is doing during this season—one of the big changes from my heterodox past is the presence of icons in my life, in the church and in the home. 

The idea of “four bare walls and a sermon”—a phrase sometimes attributed to the Swiss theologian Ulrich Zwingli—is often used as a proud descriptor of Reformed worship. It’s a bare-bones approach to faith that doesn’t leave room for stained glass or religious art of any kind. Or, frankly, for beauty.

Fortunately I didn’t grow up with bare walls in church. I was accustomed to stained glass, carved wooden altar rails, and marble. Even the various nondenominational churches I attended later in life tried to beautify their worship spaces with colorful embroidered banners and collections of crosses. But icons were a no-no.

[Photo by Ben White on Unsplash]

Over the years, I’ve heard variations of a particular iconoclastic message from my Evangelical friends: Icons were created for an illiterate population, but once the Bible became available to the masses and people learned to read, Christians no longer needed pictures to communicate truth.

The reference to the irrelevance of what is known as “icon worship” is often accompanied by a patronizing tone of voice that implies that images are for children, not for those who are mature in faith.

I beg to differ.

The either/or perspective that pits the written word of God against the “theology in color” of iconography is a false dichotomy. Both of them feed our souls, and the Orthodox Church’s use of all the senses allows us to worship God with our whole being.

As we make our way through the Christmas season, we encounter icons of the Nativity all over the Orthodox world—on church bulletins, in children’s church school materials, and on display in parishes and homes. The icon in all its variations is familiar and comforting, yet it contains depths and mysteries worth pondering, year after year.

So let’s consider this icon, detail by detail, as we think about the beauty of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the past I have seen many Christmastime posts in the blogosphere that are devoted to icons of the Nativity. But I haven’t run across any this year, so I thought I’d cobble together a few thoughts and spread some joy.

Special thanks to Uncut Mountain Supply for giving me permission to use their beautiful Nativity icons in this post.

First, the setting.

The Nativity Icon: Setting

[16th-century icon by the hand of Theophan of Crete]

In a typical icon of the Nativity of Our Lord, the mountains in the distance and the opening of the cave feature steep, craggy rocks. The landscape is clearly not a depiction of the little town of Bethlehem. In fact, you will notice similar steep mountains and sharp cliffs in other icons. The barren, rough landscape is not literal geography; it symbolizes the hostile environment of our fallen, post-Eden world. This is the broken world in which we live, and into which our Savior was born.


If you search for the cute stable featured in most wooden creches, you will not find it in an icon. Instead, Christ is born in a cave, representing the darkness of sin in the world. With His Incarnation, St. John writes, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:4).

The entire scene is illumined by the star at the top edge of the icon, and we see only part of the source of the light.

As Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky explain in The Meaning of Icons, 

A long ray from the star points directly to the cave. This ray connects the star with a part of the sphere which goes beyond the limits of the icon – a symbolic representation of the heavenly world. In this way the  icon shows that the star is not only a cosmic phenomenon, but also a messenger from the world on high, bringing tidings of the birth of “the heavenly One upon earth.”

In some icons of the Nativity (see right), the ray of light from the star has three points, representing the Holy Trinity. Others simply show a single ray of starlight (as in the icon above), and in a print of one amazing 15th-century icon available from Uncut Mountain Supply, the ray of light appears in the form of a cross (see below).


Players in the Periphery


To the viewer’s right or left, and sometimes hovering in the distance, the angels are worshiping Christ.

A Shepherd with Sheep

A young man to the side is seated on a rock, surrounded by one or more sheep. He is one of the shepherds who make their living in the hills surrounding Bethlehem. He is not yet in the presence of the Christ Child, but he plays a flute as he rejoices in the news delivered by an angel:

“Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12).

The Magi

Nativity icons feature three Magi following the light of this miraculous star. A magus is a member of a hereditary priestly class among the Medes and Persians. We don’t know for sure if these men were priests; the Gospel of Matthew refers to the magi (plural of “magus”) as “wise men from the East” without specifying their number. My guess is that since they brought three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt. 2:11), three givers are depicted.

Once the magi arrived in Jerusalem, they asked King Herod: “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2)

Then, after receiving the information they sought, they continued their pilgrimage to Bethlehem. Some icons show the magi traveling through the rugged landscape, either on horseback or on foot; others show them near the manger. Their great desire to see the King of kings, and the amount of time and effort they put into finding Him, is a great example for us all.

As the Troparion of Christmas states,

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shown to the world the Light of Wisdom! For by it those who worshiped the stars were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Orient from on High. O Lord, Glory to Thee!

The Journey

In the top corner of some Nativity icons, Mary is on a horse with the Christ Child in her womb as Joseph leads them to Bethlehem, accompanied by an angel. This little travel scene is optional, but the figure of Joseph is always present.

“The Holy Family” Is Not an Orthodox Thing

It’s important to point out here that the term “holy family”—referring to Jesus, St. Joseph, and the Panaghia—is not an Orthodox thing. I have never heard mention of the holy family in Orthodox teachings or come across it in any writings of saints. It might appear here and there—I am not a scholar—but it is definitely a Roman Catholic term.

[Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash]

Several years ago my older daughter’s husband attended a conference in Barcelona, Spain, and they visited the stunning La Sagrada Familia (“the holy family”) basilica, designed by the famous modern architect Antoni Gaudi. Lindsey bought an icon of the holy family there for Rob and me.

It was a thoughtful gift, but I still don’t know quite what to do with it. The Theotokos and Christ Child are painted traditionally, but Joseph is shown as a young man, and the way the three figures are positioned is problematic. Mary is resting her head on Joseph’s shoulder, their heads close together, and he has one arm draped around her shoulder and the other cuddling Jesus while she holds her Son’s left hand. Jesus’ right hand is raised in the traditional gesture of blessing. In short, they look like a cute, devout married couple holding their exceptionally pious toddler.

It’s just wrong. From a brief bit of research, I’ve found that this imagery of the holy family originated in the 1490s during the High Renaissance in Italy. It’s a common theme in Renaissance art, including altarpieces, but it is not traditional iconography.

For a while I placed my holy family icon in my office, then it was tucked on a bookshelf. I keep it on display, but not very prominently. Honestly, I’m uncomfortable with what it teaches.

Because iconography is known as “theology in color,” in icons of the Nativity St. Joseph’s placement makes a theological statement: He is off to the side. Joseph was not involved in the Incarnation, and he is known as Joseph the Betrothed, the protector of Mary and Jesus. He and the Virgin Mary did not have a traditional marriage. 


You can see a man sitting on a boulder at the bottom of the icon, hunched over as he rests his chin on his fist. He is usually pictured with another old man in front of him. In my parish, the Nativity icon is painted on a section of wall with limited space, so Joseph sits alone. But in most icons, the seated man with the halo is St. Joseph, and the other figure is Satan. Joseph’s facial expression is one of worry and confusion as Satan tempts him to doubt and unbelief. Is this baby really God’s Son? How can this be?

As the Protoevangelium of James teaches us (see earlier article here), Joseph was a widower when he was betrothed to the Virgin Mary. He is portrayed here as a holy, elderly man, whereas Satan is in rags.

This scene of Joseph’s inner turmoil in the icon is quite touching to me because it is so human. Even the saints—the godliest among us—have struggled with doubt and wavering faith. I find this detail to be very tender and reassuring. Joseph struggled through his doubts to arrive at a firm faith, and so can we.

The Vespers of the Forefeast of the Nativity of Christ includes this hymn:

Joseph, when he beheld the greatness of this wonder, thought that he saw a mortal wrapped as a babe in swaddling clothes; but from all that came to pass he understood that it was the true God, who grants the world great mercy.

In a few variations of the icon Joseph is near the Virgin Mary, such as the beautiful scene from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem that graces the cover of the AFP Nativity devotional, Behold a Great Light. But even in that colorful icon, the manger lies between Joseph and Mary, creating a holy separation.

Back to Joseph’s temptation to doubt: In the Nativity icon, Joseph’s temptation to

 doubt reflects our own human struggle to understand: If Jesus is truly divine, would he be born in a human way?

Jesus’ Humanity

It’s an important question. Nowadays many people believe that Jesus was a good teacher and perhaps a prophet, but He was not God. But ancient people thought differently. An early Christian heresy taught that Jesus was divine, but He couldn’t have been human; He only appeared to be human. In Gnostic thinking, the body is base and corrupted; we need to be delivered from the physical world. Only the spirit is good.

The icon addresses this heresy in another scene at the bottom, with the presence of two midwives and a vessel of water, washing the baby Jesus.

This act of bathing emphasizes the true humanity of Jesus, who was not a spirit being who merely appeared to be human. Jesus was both divine and human, and as a human baby, he needed to be washed!

Tree of Jesse

Another common but optional feature in Nativity icons is the presence of a tree.

This is not merely decorative vegetation; it represents the Tree of Jesse:  “A shoot shall sprout from the stump (tree) of Jesse and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him” (Isaiah 11:1-2).

Now we are closing in on the central images of the icon: the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. As we focus in on them, we see two animals. Although sheep are often in the background, they are optional figures—they are not strictly necessary to the icon. But two animals always appear in Nativity icons: an ox and a donkey, hovering close to the manger.

The Ox & the Donkey

Their presence is a reference to Isaiah 1:3: “The ox knows its owner / And the donkey its master’s crib; / But Israel does not know, / My people do not consider.” 

There is a sweetness to the animals’ devotion and closeness as they warm the infant Jesus with their breath. One interpretation notes that as one clean animal—the ox—and one unclean animal—the donkey—they represent both Jews and Gentiles, gazing at the Light of the World. These dumb animals know their Master and owner. 

At last we turn our attention to Jesus and Mary in the center.

The Christ Child & the Manger

The star’s heavenly light shines through the cave to the baby Jesus, who is not swaddled in the expected blanket. Instead, His wrappings are grave clothes, foreshadowing His death, burial, and Resurrection: as Matthew 27:59 tells us, when Christ was buried, Joseph of Arimathea “wrapped [His body] in a clean linen cloth.”

The baby lies in an unusual manger—not the straw-filled manger of thousands of ceramic and wooden Nativity sets.

In many icons, Jesus’ manger is depicted as a coffin, reinforcing the prophetic imagery of His grave clothes. (Two examples are shown below.)

In other icons, His manger is depicted as an altar, leading our thoughts to the Eucharist and verse 26 of Hebrews 9: “Now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.”

Ouspensky & Lossky write:

Cave, manger, swaddling clothes – are indications of the kenosis [or “self-emptying”] of the Godhead, His abasement, the utter humility of Him who, invisible in His nature, becomes visible in the flesh for man’s sake, is born in a cave, is wrapped in swaddling clothes, thus foreshadowing His death and burial, the sepulcher and the burial clothes.The Meaning of Icons

The Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary

In the center of the icon, not only is the incarnate Son of God present, but His Mother Mary literally looms large.

In every icon of the Nativity throughout the centuries, the depiction of the Virgin Mary is wildly out of proportion; she kneels or reclines in a position of honor next to her newborn Son, and she is almost a giant among the surrounding humans and angels. This is a lesson to us about her significance as the Theotokos, or God-bearer, who is the first in the world to receive Christ.

In many Nativity icons, she is facing the pensive Joseph in a touching display of concern: She is interceding for him in the midst of his doubt, just as she intercedes for us now.

After just a few minutes of contemplating this one powerful icon, I have to shake my head in wonder at people who think we only need words, spoken and written, to learn about Christ and His Church. Icons inspire us to worship. We are not drawn to worship wood and paint or the saints portrayed in them but the God in Trinity who deifies ordinary people, transforming them into His image. Veneration of icons arise not reserved for the illiterate or for simple, naive people in the distant past. Icons continually teach us deep theological truths and point us to Christ.

It is easy to understand why the Nativity icon is especially beloved in the Church, with its tenderness and depth of meaning. It is truly “theology in color,” a picture that is worth a thousand words—and more. I hope this brief survey has enriched your experience of this icon as much as it has enriched me!

May God grant us all continued good strength in this Nativity fast as we approach the Feast of the Incarnation of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 


Next time we will consider a spiritual practice that we can always grow in, never graduating: the recitation of the Jesus prayer in our hearts.

I hope you can join me.

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