The most important task of the icon is to show the invisible inner world of a Christian, to convey with paint the spiritual meaning of what is happening with man during his encounter with God. Accordingly, it can be said of many iconographic scenes that they "distort" the appearance for the sake of restoring the pure meaning of an event*.
  To understand the unusual iconographic image of the Nativity of Christ, let us think about how it would be possible to "naturally," "normally" portray it. Christmas cards and common sense suggest, first of all, to imagine a barn with one or two lambs and a mother tenderly and lovingly looking at the Infant.
But if we examine the icon of the Nativity, oddly enough, we will not see these two, it would seem, most natural details.
What is most noticeable is that there is no barn. No wood or wattle and daub construction, no straw, no feeders, no sheep. The child is not in a manger built by human hands, but in a cave.
  Why a cave? Because the iconographer attempts to convey the meaning of what is happening. The icon's testimony answers the question: "What does this mean for us men and for our salvation?" The idea is not only that a child was born; even a miraculous baby, born miraculously. The meaning of what happened to Mary is expressed not so much by the "chronicles" of Matthew and Luke as by the later, theological testimony of John: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).
  And the Gospel of John is generally a meaningful, theological commentary on the events described in the three earlier gospels. For John, who wrote later than the other Evangelists and who, according to the ancient church historians, wanted to complement the description of the life of Christ by opening up the spiritual meaning of the gospel history, a simple chronology was not enough.
  The above sentence from the Gospel of John summarizes the meaning of the Nativity. Thus, the icon of the Nativity becomes clearer if we correlate not only the narratives of Matthew and Luke but also the testimony of John the Evangelist. The whole point of the Nativity is the Incarnation: the incarnation of God, a pure spiritual Being, never having any, even the most "subtle" body. Thus, "The Word became flesh." The higher world united with the earthly. "The Kingdom of God is come upon you" (Luke 11:20). Just what does the Gospel say about this Kingdom and to what is it compared?
It turns out that this new Kingdom is not simply superimposed on top of everyday human life, does not hover above the world of man like the "platter" halo hovers over the heads of the saints in the western paintings. It enters into the very core of our world and, coming "from outside," is trying to transform our lives "from the inside."
  "The Kingdom of God is within you," proclaims the Savior (Luke 17:21). And he compares this Kingdom with a grain of wheat thrown on the ground, with a mustard seed sown in the field, with treasure buried in the ground, with leaven in the dough, and with a net cast into the sea (see Matthew 13). All of these comparisons have a common feature: the Kingdom is put inside other elements. The principle meaning of the New Testament, that God came into the world, is revealed by these images.   The wall made by sins and estrangement from God that was erected between man and God is destroyed.
  Then the symbolism of the cave on the icon of the Nativity is understandable: the cave is an image of the world, into the depths of which God enters, like a grain or leaven, thrown into the field or into the dough. The cave is the core of the earth, the center of materiality. And, thus, into this center, the One of whom it is written "God is spirit" (John 4:24) voluntarily enters.
  The cave is a dark background: darkness without hint of light. Against this background of darkness, the pure white clothes of the Infant shine. "And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not" (John 1:5). This verse from the Gospel of John can be read in different ways. The Russian translation can be called optimistic. Light shone, and the darkness could not "surround/grasp," enclose, defeat it. However, if we look at the ancient Latin translation of the Gospel (the Vulgate), we see another meaning of the same verse: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness was not penetrated by it (et tenebrae eam non comrehenderunt)." It is a much more severe, pessimistic vision of the Gospel events: the darkness remained darkness, in spite of the shining forth of the light.
The verb in the Greek original, katelaben, permits both translations. In Greek, katalambano usually means "to perceive," "to catch [the meaning]," "to absorb," but can also mean "to envelop," "to capture," "to catch up" (during pursuit), and, ultimately, "to capture," "to defeat." Thus, the evangelist, on the one hand, talks about the invincibility of the light, and, on the other hand, about the remarkable unreceptiveness of worldly darkness to the light of the Gospel.
  Light is besieged by darkness and, yet, does not mingle with darkness. This light created the world ("All things were made by Him" (John 1:3)) and this same world did not accept or recognize Him." That was the true Light...He was in the world...and the world knew Him not. He came unto His own, and His own received him not. ...and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil" (John 1:9-11; 3:19).
  The birth of the Son of God among men, the entrance of the Eternal God into our world did not frustrate the normal order of things. The Creator of heaven and earth came down to earth, but the sun and the stars (except one) continued their normal course. The sky was not split, rivers did not flow backwards, people did not become mute with horror or mystical rapture. "Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street. A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth" (Isaiah 42:1-3). This is how the Prophet Isaiah described the coming of the Son of God seven centuries before the Nativity. The world remains virtually unchanged. Its blinding darkness still obscures its eyes too much that only a few find the path to the manger in Bethlehem... And someone will look for this path only in order to bring death to the newborn King.
  In the icon overall, the symbolism of light is extremely important. The Gospel is full of light and luminous images, and the language of icons, of course, can also not be otherwise. "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined" (Isaiah 9:2). "...to open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house" (Isaiah 42:7). "I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life" (John 8:12). "In him was life; and the life was the light of men" (John 1:4). "As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world" (John 9:5).
  Thus, God in the world is the light of the world. Before Christ and without Him, this world does not have such fullness of luminosity. But "ye are complete in him" (Colossians 2:10) and "of His fullness have all we received" (John 1:16). Christ came not to reveal Himself as some unprecedented "exoticism" of both God and man at the same time. That newness that was revealed in Him is meant to also renew every single human life. Man has become different after Christ than he was before. His nature has changed; the metaphysical mutation that, long ago, since the days of Adam, distorted the human image was eliminated by the Incarnation, the Cross, and Pentecost. Now God does not from far away, beyond the mountains and clouds appeal to man, but He speaks inside our heart. This is because now not only "I am the light of the world" (John 9:5) but also "Ye are the light of the world" (Matthew 5:14). Now the disciples of Christ, faithful to Him, those in whom He lives and acts, are now a living and obvious manifestation (epiphany) of God, for Christ is portrayed in them (Galatians 4:19). "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 5:16). This is the summit to which a Christian is called. Not only to simply believe in Christ. And not just to do good works (even in His name). But to live so that, in an encounter with that person, the face of the Savior would clearly shine through. That seeing his good works, people would glorify not him but the Father Who is in heaven.
  One spiritual writer said that no one would ever become a monk if they had not seen at some point the radiance of eternal Life on the face of another person... It is particularly this light that once illuminated the apostles, and particularly this light that subdued the most powerful empire in the world through twelve fishermen. "For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost...as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake" (1 Thessalonians 1:5). See how closely the apostles connect an internal good disposition of spirit and the success of external preaching: "He (Barnabas) exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord. For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord" (Acts 11:23-24).
  "I am glorified in them," says Christ of His disciples (John 17:10). In Biblical language "the glory of God" (theophany) means especially communion, manifestation, involvement (see, e.g., "God is glorified in Him..." "He hath revealed Him" (John 13:31; 1:18).
  "I have glorified Thee on the earth: I have finished the work which Thou gavest Me to do," Jesus prays to the Father on the eve of His suffering; "the glory of Christ," the glory of the cross. The combination of these two concepts: "glory" (victory) and the cross (suffering) were also the most difficult to understand in Christ's preaching. "Then (on the eve of Holy Week) came to him the mother of Zebedee’s children (the Apostles James and John) with her sons, worshipping him, and desiring a certain thing of him. And he said unto her, What wilt thou? She saith unto him, Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on the left, in thy kingdom. But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" (Matthew 20:20-22). At the moment of the greatest glorification of Christ, at the time of the fulfilling of His ministry, bandits will be crucified on the right and left of Him... And He will drink the cup of bloody sweat in Gethsemane... But "the glory which Thou gavest Me I have given them" (John 17:22). And if anyone wants to share His glory with Him, it will be given. But together with His sufferings. "Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with" (Matthew 20:23).
  People who are ready to enlighten the world with their good works and reveal the Father, ready to accept the vengeance of the world for their otherworldliness have the same light that shone while Christ "was in the world," and that first began to glimmer in the Bethlehem manger and first met with darkness.
  From the very beginning of the Gospel and in the iconographic representation of the Gospel events, there are alarming notes. The same ambiguity is accomplished: salvation and judgment are being carried out at the same time, which is also communicated through the animals standing at the cradle. The iconographer depicts only the ox and the ass, but we do not see the expected lambs. In the Gospel, there is not a word about animals. To understand the meaning of such a choice, remember the Old Testament prophecy: "Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the Lord hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against Me. The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know [Me], My people doth not consider" (Isaiah 1:2-3).
  The tragic fate of the New Testament Israel is already foretold, and this is clearly shown on the icon. The ox and the ass encounter the Creator of all life. Simple shepherds come according to the call of the Angel. Foreigners are brought by a star. But neither the Old Testament priesthood, nor the rulers of Israel, nor the scribes, nor the experts of the Law are at the manger of the newborn King of Israel.
  "I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy. For I speak to you Gentiles... because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: for if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness" (Romans 11:11, 13, 20-22). This is how the Apostle Paul explains the reason why "His own" did not accept the Redeemer. Now we recall another Old Testament text: "Thou shalt not plow with an ox and an ass together" (Deuteronomy 22:10). We know that the motive for differentiation, preservation from mixing, is very important in the first books of the Bible. Israel must not lose their knowledge of the One God through mixing with Gentiles. But all people are called to Christ, their place of origin is not important. Not their descent is important but their calling. Are you prepared to follow Christ, to accept Him as your only Lord? If yes, then "There is neither Jew nor Greek...for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). And here, at the manger, the God-Man encounters the ox and the ass. In the symbolism of the church, this is a meeting of the people of Israel with the pagans.
  Another particularity of the icon of the Nativity, which displaces it from a literalist reading of the Gospel narrative and from our expectations, is the mutual arrangement of the Mother and Infant. Mary does not look at the Infant. Moreover, she lies apart from Him, not in the cave next to him, but on the mountainside. The presence on the icon of the mountain and the portrayal of Mary like a rock lying on the hillside is connected with the Old Testament prophecy of Daniel, who interpreted the prophetic dream of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar: "Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, his legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay. Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces. ...and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth" (Daniel 2:31-35). The image on feet of clay is a pagan empire, and the stone that "in the latter days" (Daniel 2:28) will crush the rule of paganism and fill the universe is the kingdom erected by God, the Eternal Kingdom, the Kingdom of God (Daniel 2:22). "The latter days" in the New Testament are called the days of the earthly life of Christ, "when the fullness of time was come" (Galatians 4:4).
  Again, as in the Gospels, we see the same symbolism of the Kingdom of God, the symbolism of the grain: something small develops into something universal. This eternal Kingdom, according to the prophecy of Daniel, will be given to the Son of Man by the "Ancient of Days" (Daniel 7:13-14). In the New Testament, Jesus will apply to Himself the Son of Man's name, as a messianic name. In addition, in the Gospel, the image of the stone also refers to Christ (Matthew 2:42-44; Luke 20:17-18). This stone will be a cornerstone, a stone of creation and a stumbling block and will require a personal, discriminating relationship to itself, as the Old Testament prophet Isaiah foretold ("I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone...he that believeth shall not make haste" (Isaiah 28:16)). Finally, Daniel stresses that "the stone was cut out of the mountain without hands" by God (Daniel 2:45), as a prototype of the miraculousness, the Divinity of Christ's birth.
  And, therefore, the stone is not only related to in this way by the One Who is born but also by the One Who miraculously gave birth: Mary. Particularly She provided the beginning of the way for the "stone." He began his earthly journey through Her. Therefore, it is iconographically namely Mary who is correlated with a stone lying on the mountainside (there is even a certain type of icon named "Theotokos - the Uncut Mountain").
  Thus, two rows of symbols of the Kingdom of God are connected in the portrayal of the Mother and Infant. The Infant in the cave recalls those praying about the New Testament images of the Kingdom, while Mary on the mountainside directs us to the Old Testament expectations of that Kingdom.
  It is worth noting that Mary in the icon is not looking at the Infant. What just happened is expressed in the Creed by the words "for us men and for our salvation." The Son of God came to earth to ease the severity of human suffering. But agonizing doubts disturbed the earthly godfather of Christ, Joseph, the formal husband of Mary.
  Mary was born after many prayers and long expectation of her parents. This was an "implored for child." Having miraculously received a daughter from God, Mary's parents (Joachim and Anna) decided to dedicate the child to God. From childhood, Mary was raised at the Temple in Jerusalem. When she reached the threshold of maidenhood, her parents died. The laws of ritual purity did not allow a mature girl to live in the Temple. The Old Testament world did not know of monasteries. Moreover, public opinion and the religion of Israel quite harshly related to childless people, particularly women, especially those from the line of David, to which belonged Mary (because no one knew to whom would be born the long-awaited Messiah). And who knows, maybe this particular woman who is now renouncing marriage and childbirth could be the mother of the Redeemer, and maybe her current infertility is delaying the coming of the Happy Day for years... The law prescribed that every girl was to get married as soon as possible. But Mary had a feeling that her vocation was related to something other than a normal marriage. She persuaded the priests to give her in marriage only formally. From the Temple, she was taken and given into the care of an old widower who had children by his first wife and who promised to keep the purity of the Virgin (the children of Joseph in the Gospels are called "brothers of Jesus").
  Joseph became the "betrothed" of Mary. And it is particularly to him that the Virgin directs her gaze in icons of the Nativity. Joseph is overwhelmed by doubts. He knows that, in fact, he is not the husband of Mary. And that means he is not the Child's father. What should be done? By law, a wife who violates faithfulness to her spouse must be stoned to death. Give Mary over to the court or just secretly release her from his house so that she would live as she wished? Conclude a fictive marriage with a fictive divorce? Later Christian ethics allows divorce for only one reason: the infidelity of a spouse (and infertility in very rare cases). But the Old Testament customs allowed divorce by consent of the spouses. So, what to do with Mary? Joseph finally was inclined towards a softer outcome. "Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily" (Matthew 1:19). The Gospel tells us that these doubts had already visited Joseph as soon as he noticed his betrothed wife was with child. And the Gospel immediately tells us about the resolution of these doubts: "But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost" (Matthew 1:20).
  The icon of the Nativity recalls the struggles of Joseph, and, therefore, Mary looks at the one who was first caused pain by the news of the miraculous Nativity.
Historically and chronologically, the temptation of Joseph began long before the night of the Nativity. But the icon brings together events from different times to emphasize the uncommonness and miraculousness of what has taken place. What man was not able to conceive, that which does not fit into any physical or metaphysical conception, has become a fact, the most important fact of being.
  Another miracle, another resolution of doubt represented on the icon is the assurance of Salome. If the scene of the temptation of Joseph is usually in the lower left corner of the icon, the assurance of Salome, on the contrary, is in the lower right corner. The apocryphal "Protoevangelium of James" says that Salome did not believe the testimony of a midwife about the virginity of the One who gave birth and, when washing Her, she dared to verify the incredible report. For her unbelief, her hand was paralyzed. In response to her penitential tears, Salome heard: "Reach out your hand to the Infant and hold Him and you will have salvation and joy," which Salome did. The icon shows how, having acquired faith, Salome washes the Infant*.
  The scene of the assurance of Joseph should confirm the miraculousness, the uncommonness of the divinity of the Nativity. The scene of the washing, on the contrary, is intended to confirm the authenticity of the Incarnation: the Son of God does not just seem to be a man but really became a man. All that infants require is also necessary for Him. Jesus is true God and true man. Without a clear statement of both of these truths, it is impossible to be a Christian.
  Finally, the icon of the Nativity is another series of images to help grasp the meaning of the Nativity as the border, as a meeting of the Old and New Testaments. The people of the Old Testament, "Israel according to the flesh," is presented by shepherds, while humanity, which came from paganism straight to Christ, bypassing the severity of the Old Testament, is represented by the magi Persians. In Christian literature, the Magi and the shepherds are often seen as an allegory of the various paths to a single Truth: the path of reason and the path of faith. The shepherds are an image of people of pure heart, simple and unlearned, but who trust their heart and God. The shepherds, having received from the angel the good news in purity and simplicity of heart, accepted it and hurried to the manger. But the magi are astrologers, astronomers, educated people who, by their calculations, learned the time of the Nativity of the Universal King and went looking for Him. This is an image of people who through knowledge of the world come to recognition of the Creator. In icons, the shepherds are usually directly at the entrance to the cave, while the wise men still far over the hill. The path of the shepherds is straighter and shorter than the path of those craving "by searching [to] find out God" (Job 11:7). The magi in the icon are of various ages. Ahead of the others, the youngest of them points to the star. One can find Christ and worship him at any age. But it is better not to do this at the "eleventh hour" of one's life but at the "first" (Matthew 20).
  Finally, Angels are present in the icon of the Nativity. Usually, in the ancient icons, one Angel has his face toward the sky, while the second is inclined to the shepherds. This is a visible expression of the double angelic ministry: their purpose in glorifying God and in proclaiming God's will to people.
  The entire universe is assembled together, because this is the feast of its renewal. St. Gregory the Theologian wrote: "The Nativity is not a novel feast, but a renewal."   The old world is not burned, not destroyed, not made meaningless by the coming of God, neither is it created anew. The former world is renewed. "The Incarnation of God gives the universe new meaning, which is the purpose and justification for its existence and its future Transformation. This is why all of creation participates in the mystery of the birth of the Redeemer."*
  The verbal icon of what has been accomplished is the festal Kontakion: "Today the Virgin giveth birth unto the Transcendent One, and the earth offereth a cave to the unapproachable One. Angels and shepherds give glory, the magi journey with the star. For unto us a Child is born, the preeternal God."