The day after every major feast in the Orthodox Church is usually dedicated to a saint who played a major “supporting role” in the events celebrated. So, the 7th of January – the day after we celebrate the baptism of Christ – is dedicated to St John the Baptizer of Christ; the day after the Annunciation is dedicated to the Archangel Gabriel; after Pentecost we celebrate the “day of the Holy Spirit”. And so, on the 26th of December we celebrate the Synaxis (Meeting) of the Mother of God.
The Greek word Synaxis is often retained in English, or else translated to “Meeting”; in Russian, the word used is sobor (Собор). In both the Greek and Russian meanings, it denotes an assembly of the faithful for liturgical, celebratory, reasons. Therefore the synaxis of the Mother of God is the celebration of Jesus’ earthly mother. It is perhaps one of the oldest feast-days dedicated solely to the Mother of God, dating from the 4th century A.D. At this time, the “twelve days of Christmas” were a general wintertime celebration of Jesus’ birth, childhood and all his life up to the point of His baptism in the River Jordan, at the age of 30, which is celebrated on the twelfth day (6th Jan). Within this context, it is fitting to celebrate also the Mother of God.
Despite the ancient precedent of the feast, icons specifically depicting the synaxis did not appear until the medieval period, presumably because more standard icons of the Mother of God would suffice for liturgical purposes. Those that survive, are usually found on the walls of churches and generally show the Mother of God seated on a throne with the Christ-infant in her lap. Around her, there is an assembly of various peoples, Saints and angels – some of which are recognizable from icons of the Nativity and the Christmas story whilst others are more mysterious. However, the hymns of the Church provide the answer, and source, of the image, in particular one section written by St. Anatolius from the Vespers (evening) service for Christmas Day:
What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, who for our sake hast appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks. The angels offer Thee a hymn; the heavens a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger: and we offer Thee a Virgin Mother. O pre-eternal God, have mercy upon us
– Stichera from “Lord I have cried…”
The angels, heavens, shepherds and magi are all easily recognizable. The two female figures – usually in the lower third of the icon – are personifications of “the earth” and “the wilderness” (or desert) carrying their respective offerings of the cave and the manger. The lady representing the earth is sometimes honored with a crown, whilst the lady representing the desert-wilderness is often surrounded by much greenery. This is to symbolize the spiritual fruitfulness of the desert. Additionally, in Russia where many of these icons originate, the wilderness would have been a place full of trees, swamps and teeming with wildlife. An 18th century Russian icon (see right) of the Synaxis shows the wilderness offering a manger and surrounded by typically Russian fir trees (full icon can be viewed here).
Finally, at the bottom of the icon is a collection of people, Saints (sometimes), clergy, monks etc. representing the whole human race who offer up: “a Virgin Mother”. What does this mean?
The feeling of motherly love is something natural to God’s creation yet it is not something possible for God to experience directly. In God’s supreme humility toward us He became human and so was able to finally experience this love from His earthly mother, Mary. Yet because this motherly affection is truly a part of creation, not the Creator, it can be said that this motherly love is humanity’s offering to God. Thus the Word of God came to earth and all creation made an offering: the angels, praise; the earth, a cave; the wilderness, a manger; the heavens, a star; and humanity – we – offered Mary, the Mother of God! By being incarnated as man on earth, God truly allowed all of us to partake in salvation and communion with God. But knowing that we truly did nothing in and of ourselves to bring about Mary’s humble acceptance and final birth-giving of God, we can only cry out: Have mercy on us!
On the Synaxis of the Mother of God – from the OCA website
Icon of the Synaxis (17th C) – (in Russian) a detail of this icon is used in the article.
Icon of the Synaxis (16th C, Palekh) – a detail of this icon is used in the article.
Article on the Synaxis Icon and “its riddles” (in Russian)