By Father John Parker
Our journey to Bethlehem through the images in Andrei Rublev’s Nativity finishes at the center—a center which has two foci: Mary, the Virgin Mother, and the somewhat less obvious (because of His size) newborn Christ (who, biblically speaking, is not “Jesus” until He is named on the 8th day—see Luke 2:21.)
Mary—the Theotokos, or God-bearer, as she is known in the Church—is the most noticeable figure in the icon. One’s eyes are immediately drawn to her, not only by her central location, but by her relative size and the bright red color of the bed on which she lies. The ever-virgin Mother’s body faces our Lord, yet her eyes gaze into the distance, as she keeps all those things that the Shepherds told her, “pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Mary’s geometrically central position in this icon points to the reality that she herself is the gift which we human beings offer for this redemptive event. Recall the hymn we’ve been singing:
What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, Who for our sakes hast appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks: The angels offer a hymn; The heavens a star; The wisemen gifts; The shepherds, their wonder; The earth, its cave; The wilderness, a manger. And we offer Thee a virgin mother. O pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!
“We offer Thee a virgin mother…” Mary is the pure offering of humanity, known in the Church by many of the names given to the instruments of worship in the Old Testament, and supremely, “the Temple” itself—Her womb being the actual dwelling place of God-made-man. The Theotokos is not for us the great exception, but rather, the great example. She was chosen and prepared by God, and by her consent, her ‘fiat’, bore Emmanuel, God-with-us.
The Church chants this beautiful hymn as from the lips of the Mother of God:
‘Thou, O my Son, art the all-perfect God, Yet Thou didst accept the form of Adam! In my hands I hold Thee, yet Thou dost hold all creation! How shall I wrap Thee in swaddling clothes? How shall I nourish Thee, O Food of Life? How shall I wonder at Thine ineffable poverty? How shall I name Thee, since I am Thy servant?’ Thy mother cried: ‘I can only sing and bless Thee, For Thou dost grant the world great mercy!’
Indeed, as evidenced here at the Nativity, Mary is the first and most important Christian, as described in a beautiful hymn we sing of her. She is “more honorable than the Cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim.” As we contemplate the Nativity of Christ, we can hardly overlook her who gave birth to God the Word. We are obliged by gratitude and joy to fulfill her prophetic hymn, “all generations shall call me blessed.” Indeed, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, for you have borne the Savior of our souls!”
Now, in the silence of the black cave, at the tips of the noses of the curious ox and ass (who recognized their maker), and resting gently no longer within, but just outside, the womb of His most-pure mother, we find our Lord, according to the Scriptures, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. What are these swaddling clothes? Much more than just some rags that happened to be at hand! Those familiar with the icon of the raising of Lazarus from the dead will recognize that the infant Christ is wrapped, more specifically, in a burial shroud. Even in His nativity, hinted at also with the gift of myrrh, the purpose for His incarnation is made manifest: born to die for the sins of the whole world.
In the icon, as in life, our Lord is ‘findable’ but must be sought out. Have I looked? Have I found the One whom the angels today hymn? Have I found the One worshiped by the Magi who learned of Him from the stars? If we don’t know where to look by ourselves, we can follow the star, the magi, the shepherds, the animals. They all know where to point us. “Seek and you shall find.”
Once having found and recognized Him as the Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Holy One, Emmanuel, have I asked the resounding question, “What shall I offer Thee, O Christ, who hast appeared on Earth as Man?” What can we offer Him besides true worship and obedience? “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us!”
Especially for the Nativity of Christ, Orthodox Christians have a special “call and response” greeting. Beginning this evening, one joy-filled Christian greets another, “Christ is born!” and the other responds, “Glorify Him!” Such a greeting is exchanged during the many days of this feast which commences, not ends, at the Vigil of the Nativity.
With the angels, I greet you, and 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” (Luke 2:10-11). And with jubilation, I salute you with the blessings of the feast. Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
~ Fr. John Parker, Journey to Bethlehem, Part IV, “The Sounding”, Orthodox Christian Network (OCN), http://myocn.net/journey-bethelehem-part-1/.
Fr John Parker is the pastor of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mt Pleasant, South Carolina (www.ocacharleston.org), and the Chair of the Department of Evangelization of the Orthodox Church in America. He graduated the College of William and Mary (1993) with a major in Spanish and a minor in German. He earned his MDiv at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA. After being received into the Orthodox Church, he earned an MTh at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, where is also currently enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program. He has a regular podcast “Lord Send Me!” on Ancient Faith Radio, and has been a frequent writer for Charleston, SC’s Post and Courier.