The mystery of Christ’s Nativity is above all a paschal mystery. Pascha, in our Orthodox tradition, refers first of all to Easter, the feast of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Yet it refers as well to every image of sacrifice that was revealed during Jesus’ earthly ministry, from His birth, through His baptism and transfiguration, to His crucifixion. Each stage of His pilgrimage, from the cavern and creche in Bethlehem to His burial in the Noble Joseph’s tomb, reveals the mystery of His vocation: to be a sacrifice of the Father’s love, for our salvation and the salvation of God’s world.
In the icon of the Nativity this mystery is revealed in a specially poignant way. The traditional image shows the Christ-child in the center, surrounded by the walls of the cavern in which He was born. He is wrapped not in the swaddling clothes of a newborn infant, but in winding cloth: a burial shroud that foreshadows His repose in another cavern, another black hole carved into the heart of creation, following His death upon the Cross. He is laid not in a cradle, but on an altar of sacrifice: a place of ritual slaughter that points forward to the moment when He will stretch out His arms on the “tree,” feel the nails pierce His flesh, and utter the final cry of a dying man: “Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit!”
Mary, clothed in the red of death and resurrection, gazes past the child into eternity, pondering the mystery that has come upon her. She is in fact the central figure, since she is the Mother of God, the Holy Virgin in whom the eternal Son of God became man. Because of her fiat, her acceptance of the awesome call laid upon her, God was able to assume “flesh,” the fullness of our fallen humanity. “He became what we are,” with the sole intent to open the way before us—the way of holiness, sanctity and love—so that we might “become what He is.” So that we might share fully in the glory and joy of His resurrected life.
All of this is possible, because the Virgin replied, “Yes.” Because she submitted herself to the most awesome and prodigious mystery of all, the mystery of “Incarnation.”
Yet her expression reveals another side to her willing acceptance of the angel’s call. Her destiny involves not only a miraculous conception under conditions that will expose her to ridicule and condemnation. It also involves tragedy. She senses from the beginning, the icon tells us, that her Son is born to die. She gives birth to a sacrificial lamb. She knows that this child, a gift to her, will also be a gift to the world. And she realizes that this gift will involve suffering for herself as well as for Him. She cannot yet see herself standing at the foot of His cross. Nevertheless, she already intuits what the Holy Elder Simeon will declare to her a few days hence: “A sword will pierce your soul also.”
Despite the air of tragedy that hangs over the scene, the icon points well beyond darkness and death. Into the black hole there descends a brilliant ray of light and the image of a dove, symbolizing the presence of the Holy Spirit. Above is the hand of the Father, the source of all life, both human and divine. And on the altar, the Christ-child. There, in the poverty and misery of a manger, appear the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. As in the scenes of Christ’s baptism and transfiguration, God is present and makes Himself known.
Jesus of Nazareth, the eternal Son of God, is born in the most humble conditions imaginable, in a way that provokes skepticism and hostility on the part of his contemporaries and even members of His own family. He is born into the conditions of our daily life: our routine, our stress, our anxiety, our mortality. Yet He comes as a sacrificial gift of the Father’s love.
A little boy once asked me why God sent His Son Jesus to die and didn’t come Himself. I showed him an icon of the Nativity and tried to explain what can hardly be put into words, but seems nevertheless more true than most things. I told him that any father would rather die himself than sacrifice his child.
When the Father offered His Son for the life of the world, He offered to us the ultimate gift of His love. With the death of Jesus, the Mother of our Lord knew infinite grief and sadness. And His Father did, no less.