By Fr John Breck, December 2, 2005
The best way to prepare for a feast, I find, is to spend some time looking at and praying before the festal icons. Nativity offers a broad array of sacred images that spell out graphically the biblical Word of the incarnation, the coming of the eternal God in the person of a little child. One of the most striking aspects of those images is the way they blend light and dark: the eternal Light that penetrates and illumines the darkness, the black hole, in the world and in my own soul. Many years ago I tried to express something of this blending in a meditation I offered to a friend shortly after his wife died of cancer. In this Nativity season of this troubled year, it seems appropriate to offer it once again.
“The icon of the Nativity of our Lord focuses above all upon the mystery of the Incarnation. Yet a number of its more significant details foreshadow the coming passion of the ‘Word made flesh.’
Contemplating the mystery of the pre-eternal God who has come as a little child, the worshiper’s eyes are drawn at once to the figure of the newborn infant. He lies not in a manger, but in a cave, a black hole carved into the heart of the created and fallen world. In Orthodox iconography there is a highly developed ‘theology of the abyss’ that finds expression in the major events of Christ’s life. Here the cave is transformed into the abyss, as is the Jordan River in many icons of Theophany. Leonid Ouspensky sees in this detail a figure of ‘this world stricken with sin through man’s fault, in which “the Sun of truth” shone forth.’ The abyss, however, is a universal symbol for death and for the power of hell. This is evident in those Theophany icons in which Christ descends into the black waters of the Jordan—the realm of primeval chaos and thus an image of hell—and by His sanctifying power banishes Satan from his own domain. Clearly there is an intentional parallel between the cave of the nativity, the water of baptism, the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and the infernal abyss into which the crucified Lord descends to set free those held in the bondage of death.
This interpretation is confirmed by the image of the Christ child Himself. In the Nativity icon He is not merely clothed in the apparel of an infant; He is wrapped head to foot in swaddling bands that envelop His body like a shroud. As Lazarus shall be, He is bound with the garment of the dead, prefiguring His own burial in the tomb of the noble Joseph. Nor is the child simply laid upon a bed of straw. Instead, His cradle is given the form of a sacrificial altar, upon which the Son of God is born to die as a life-giving offering for the sins of the world.
In the icon reproduced by Ouspensky and Lossky (Novgorod School, 15th century), the Theotokos or Mother of the newborn Christ looks away from the infant and gazes with compassion at Joseph, who is tortured by doubt concerning the origin of her child. In other representations she is shown looking directly at the infant Jesus or directing her gaze towards eternity. In each case, her solemn expression and her passive, reclining figure (usually draped in the deep red that symbolizes both sacrifice and resurrection) suggest that she is contemplating not the joyous event of the Savior’s birth, but rather the ultimate consequences of her fiat that will one day place her at the foot of the Cross….”
Further reflection on these Nativity images reveals a still more striking feature. Above, there appears the hand of God. From His outstretched fingers a ray of light, surrounding the dove-like figure of the Holy Spirit, penetrates into the darkness of the cavern, where the Christ-child lies. Into that abysmal darkness there shines the Everlasting Light, the Light of hope, of joy, of peace. That Light illumines the darkness of the cave, as it illumines the darkness of our mind. Thereby it enables us to see what in more ordinary times remains beyond our field of vision. We ourselves enter the cavern at the moment of Christ’s birth; we behold that radiant Light and find ourselves bathed in it. And with angels and shepherds, with all of the fallen and renewed creation, we celebrate the Good News of fulfilled prophecy: this child Jesus is truly “Emmanuel.” In Him, in the midst of this dark and forbidding world, God is truly with us. In Him, Light has shone into the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
~Orthodox Church in America, https://www.oca.org/reflections/fr.-john-breck/light-into-darkness.
 Ouspensky and Lossky, The Meaning of Icons (Boston, 1969), p. 159; reissued by SVS