TEACHING THE LESSON
There are many ways to teach young children about the Birth of Christ. We find the icon of the Nativity a powerful storytelling tool, whereas, for the older children, the beautiful Kontakion “Today the Virgin gives birth”, chanted at the Orthros (Matins) of the feast, is also helpful.
By unknown painter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
At the end of the lesson, the children should be able to:
- Roughly tell the story of Christ’s birth by observing the icon.
- Identify the main characters in the icon: the Theotokos, baby Christ, Joseph, the angels, the shepherds, the Magi.
The older children within this age group should also be able to:
- Point to the scene of Christ’s bath and explain why it is important (it shows that Christ was a real baby).
- Explain why Joseph is sitting away from the Theotokos and Child (he was not Christ’s father).
- Identify the devil in the icon and explain what he is doing (he is tempting Joseph not to believe in the Incarnation of God).
- Explain why the Nativity of Christ is important to us (it is part of God’s plan for our salvation).
Using the material from our printable package above, the children could do the following:
- Fill in an icon worksheet to identify the different parts of the icon.
- Make a cut-and-glue craft of the Orthodox Nativity scene.
- Act out the scene using paper puppets.
- According to Orthodoxy, through the Incarnation of God the whole of creation acquired new meaning and potential.
- At the Nativity, representatives of the whole created world gave thanks to God by offering something to the newborn Christ.
- The icon and Kontakion of the Nativity both tell the story of Christ’s birth.
- The two are closely connected – the icon visually represents what is verbally described in the Kontakion.
- In the icon, we observe a variety of scenes that seem to occur at the same time but, in reality, happened at separate times.
- Every object in the icon has deep theological meaning and all elements have a scriptural reference from the Bible and the Holy Tradition.
The Kontakion – Today the Virgin gives birth
Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One, / And the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One! / Angels with shepherds glorify Him! / The wise men journey with a star! / Since for our sake the Eternal God was born as a Little Child! (OCA translation)
- English version chanted by the Male Choir of St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.
- Greek version chanted by the Greek Byzantine Choir.
The icon of the Nativity is a multiple icon in which many events of the story are shown. These events took place at different times, but the iconographer depicts them all together so that the icon tells the whole story.
The central figure in the icon is the Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary, who is often the largest in size. Indeed, of all the creation the Theotokos had the most important part in the Incarnation of God. Without the person of the Theotokos, her total obedience to God’s will, and her preparation with God’s grace, the Incarnation would not have occurred. Depending on the theological interpretation, the Theotokos may be depicted:
- Sitting next to Baby Christ looking at Him with a peaceful expression – this signifies the divinity of Christ and the ever-virginity of His Mother.
- Lying down on a mattress next to Baby Christ, with a tired but serene expression after giving birth – this signifies the humanity of Christ. Photios Kondoglou notices ‘the sweet melancholy’ in the Theotokos’ facial expression, which foretells her Son’s journey to the Cross.
- From the 14th century and on, especially in western iconography, the Theotokos is kneeling in front of the newborn Christ with hands in prayer or raised up to heaven in praise, thus emphasizing again the divinity of the Holy Child and her own ever-virginity.
The Baby Christ
The Baby Christ is lying inside the manger, tightly swaddled in baby clothes, with a serene expression on His face. The scene strikingly brings to mind the icon of the Resurrection. The manger resembles the stone coffin, the swaddling baby clothes resemble Christ’s burial shroud, even the cave of the Nativity resembles the tomb of Christ. In some icons, Baby Christ is put not inside the manger but upon an altar – a definite symbol of the Eucharist. These characteristics point out that Christ’s Nativity prepares the way to His Sacrifice for the salvation of humankind.
The Star is depicted as coming down from a semi-circular shape, a symbol of the heavenly world. Defying the laws of nature, the Star’s only ray pierces the rock of the cave shedding its glorious light on the newborn Baby, signifying that the New Star – Christ – is born. Sometimes the Star is depicted with three rays – the Holy Trinity – enclosing the Holy Child. According to K. Kalokyris, ‘the star represents the coming, the descent of God the Word from the heavens into the cave through His epiphany’.
Although there is not any reference of animals in the Gospels, we always see an ox and a donkey in all the icons of the Nativity. The two animals draw a direct reference to the Old Testament (Isaiah 1:2-3). According to St Gregory of Nyssa, the ox is a symbol of Israel, the people of God, and the donkey is a symbol of the Gentiles.
The cave is depicted inside a rough mountain, which is not the usual terrain of that geographic region, but rather, signifies the ever-virginity of the Theotokos. Indeed, the composer of the Akathist hymn (Salutations) to the Theotokos, calls Her ‘the mountain uncut’, an expression taken from the Old Testament (Daniel 2:34-35). According to other interpretations, the darkness of the cave symbolizes the sinful state of humankind. The cave also brings to mind Christ’s tomb, as mentioned above.
The righteous Joseph, the guardian of the Theotokos, is usually depicted sitting outside the cave, his back turned on the young Mother and Her Child. This position signifies that Joseph is not the father of the Child. He looks puzzled and lost in his thoughts. An old shepherd wearing a fleece on his back is talking to him – this is the devil, who is tempting Joseph to doubt the miracle of the Virgin Birth.
The midwives and the first bath
According to tradition, Joseph called midwives to help the Theotokos after the birth of Her Divine Son. The midwives are shown outside the cave, usually in the lower part of the icon, giving Baby Christ His first bath – this emphasizes the humanity of Christ: as a human baby, He needs a bath. The Church Fathers interpret the bath as a foreshadowing of the Baptism and by extension, the Holy Eucharist.
There are two groups of angels. One group is gathered above the cave glorifying God for the miracle of the Incarnation. The second group, or, most often, one angel, is announcing the good news about the birth of the Messiah to the humble shepherds.
Three shepherds are usually depicted, two of them are listening to the angel announcing the birth of the Messiah, and the third one is playing the reed-pipe to celebrate the good news. According to L. Ouspensky, ‘the reed-pipe player adds human art to the angels’ choir’. Because of their simple and humble hearts, the shepherds were rightly the first humans to learn the good news about the coming of the Messiah; by contrast, the Magi, the wise men, who are seeking God through earthly knowledge, make a long journey to find and worship Him.
In some icons, the shepherds also offer gifts to the Newborn Christ: a lamb, a shepherd’s staff and a reed-pipe. The lamb signifies Christ’s sacrifice, the shepherd’s staff signifies Christ as the Good Shepherd, and the reed-pipe signifies Christ as another Orpheus who leads His disciples and followers.
The Magi (wise men)
The Magi or wise men were high-ranked priests in ancient Persia, astrologers and foretellers, and were highly honored. According to tradition, Magi from the East saw a strange and bright star and interpreted that a great King would be born in Judea, so they set out to meet Him and worship Him. They carried precious gifts for the Newborn Christ: gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Church Fathers interpret these gifts as symbolic: gold, for Christ is the King of All; frankincense, for Christ is God; myrrh, for Christ is going to die for the salvation of world.
Three Magi are depicted in the icon walking at the back side of the mountain. Sometimes they are shown riding horses of a different color hide, signifying the three known continents of the earth. The Magi are also of different age, which means that at any age a person may believe in and follow Christ. Sometimes the Magi wear crowns like kings, which means that the kings of the earth worship the King of All.
For more, please visit: y2am.org
- The Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the Flesh, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America.
- The Nativity of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, Orthodox Church in America, Saints’ Lives.
- Knowing the Master’s Manger, by Fr Lawrence Farley, Orthodox Church in America.
- L. Ouspensky & V. Lessky, The Meaning of Icons, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. pages 157-163.
- The Nativity Icon and The Womb and the Tomb, from A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons.
- Εικόνα της Γεννήσεως του π. Δ. Σκλήρη, Αποστολική Διακονία (Greek).
We are grateful to Matushka Robin Freeman, Director of Music of St Vladimir’s Theological Orthodox Seminary, for her kind permission to use the Kontakion of the Nativity from the CD “St Vladimir’s Live: The Chorale and Octet in Concert” rel. 2013 in our animation. Many thanks also go to Pavlos Dovas from FM Records (Athens, Greece) and the artist Lenka Peskou for their kind permission to use her instrumental version of the Byzantine traditional Christmas carol from the CD “50 Greek Carols: The Instrumentals” rel. 2016.
Special thanks to the Department of Religious Education of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and to iconographer Athanasius Clark, for allowing us to use his Nativity icon in our material.
Scrapbooking paper used in the illustrations:
- The Paper Studio – Eclectic Remix 12″x12″
- The Paper Studio – The Basics 12″x12″
- Recollections multi-patterned paper pad 12″x12
- DCWV – Double Sided Cardstock Stack 12″x12″
- Colorbök – Spray Paint Cardstock 12″x12″
- Jane Davies – Collage Papers
- Pebbles – Front Porch 12″x12″
Please note: We do not receive any financial compensation for the external links that we mention in our posts. We are only including them to share our experience and to make it easier for the reader, if interested, to find the products we used.