As the “old calendar” feast of the Nativity is upon us (January 7), here is an Icon of the Nativity (Рождество Христово) from the city of Nizhny Novgorod, and dating from the second half of the 17th century.
The icon tells a fuller story of the Nativity, and incorporates many other events which happened both before and after the event of Christ’s birth itself. In this respect, the icon represents the older Feast of Lights, which celebrated all events from Christ’s birth up until His Baptism in the River Jordan; there is a hat-tip to this latter occurrence, called the Theophany, in the dove (Holy Spirit) within a tri-pointed star at the top of the entire scene. But the Icon contains much more.
The upper part of the image describes the story of the Christ’s birth found on all Nativity Icons. In addition, the story of the magi is told more fully: not only are they shown following the star to Bethlehem, but also shown worshipping the Christ-child and bearing gifts. This scene clearly takes place in a separate building, not the cave of Jesus’ birth, which tallies with the Biblical accounts indicating that the Magi appeared up to 2 years after the Nativity. As in most Nativity icons, the three Magi consist of one youth (unbearded), one middle-aged man (brown beard) and one elderly man (white beard), reminding us of the universality of the Gospel, which is for all people – Gentile and Jew – and of all ages. To the right of the cave in which Christ was born, the three Magi are shown after worshipping the Christ-child, and being warned by an angel not to return to Herod. To the far right of the Icon, the three Magi are shown once again on horseback, hurrying away from Bethlehem after heeding the angel’s words.
The reason for the angel’s warning was because Herod wished to kill the young child Jesus, as he feared the Infant was the longed-for Saviour Who would overthrow the king’s corrupt regime. Upon hearing of the Magis’ secret escape, the enraged Herod ordered a massacre of all local boys under two years of age, so that among them Jesus would be killed. Amid this “slaughter of the innocents“, John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, was also sought his son was prophesied to be the forerunner and Baptist of Christ. When Zechariah would not reveal John’s whereabouts, he was murdered between the Temple and the altar, as described later by Jesus (Mt. 23:35). A composite of this whole sorry scene is depicted along the bottom of the icon. Above the slain body of Zechariah, a woman weeps over the swaddled body of an infant. This is Rachel, and the image is a fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy as described by St Matthew: Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more’ (Mt 2:18). To the left of Rachel, a small house containing two weeping mothers completes the scene, and reminds us that like their children they too suffered their own form of martyrdom.
Next to this house of mourning, the Righteous Joseph is shown being told in a dream to flee Bethlehem for Egypt. This is how the holy family escape the soldiers of Herod, and this flight into Egypt is shown prominently on the right of the icon; the river Nile runs darkly beneath them. According to St. Matthew, the family stayed in Egypt until Herod died, and so then returned, fulfilling the prophecy of the Messiah: “Out of Egypt have I called my Son” (Hosea 11:1). The Flight into Egypt shows Mary, Christ, Joseph and James, the Brother of the Lord, all escaping. As mentioned in a previous post, the Icon of the Nativity draws on the Protoevangelium of James as one of its sources, and it is from this writing that we learn that St. James was the elder step-brother of Jesus, being the son of the widower Joseph from his previous marriage. This act of Joseph in protecting the Christ-child is the final scene of this Icon, and one of the last acts of Joseph recorded in Holy Scripture. As such, this is how we honour and remember the Righteous Joseph, rather than as the man beset with doubts outside the cave – also shown on the Nativity Icon.
Proclaim the wonder, O Joseph,
to David, the ancestor of God:
you saw a Virgin great with Child,
you gave glory with the shepherds,
you worshipped with the Magi,
you received the news from the angel.
Pray to Christ God to save our souls!