The icon is by the very excellent modern Greek iconographer Georgios Kordis, which I downloaded from his website, https://kordis.gallery. It paints the traditional Orthodox iconographic representation of the Nativity: angels giving glory from heaven and announcing to the shepherds on the right, a midwife washing the infant Jesus on the bottom right, a young shepherd on the left piping a tune, and Joseph on the bottom left having his own conversation somewhat out of the picture – as men always were at birth deliveries, and often still are. And the birth is depicted in a cave, which is the way Orthodox iconographic tradition represents the ‘manger’.
But there is one unique feature here which I don’t believe I have ever seen before in an icon of the Nativity. Mary seems to be holding and lifting a veil above the figure of Christ. I don’t know what was on the mind of Kordis when he did this icon, but it immediately sent my mind to that passage in Colossians where Paul wrote:
I became servant to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me. (Colossians 1:26-29)
It is as if in this icon Mary is the first of the ‘saints’ to whom the ‘mystery’ of the ages has been revealed, and she is doing her part to unveil that mystery – just as Paul would do in his letter to the Colossians, and just as every member of God’s household will do, each in our own way according to the grace given us.
In others of his letters Paul refers to the same idea, the revelation of the mystery. See, for example, Romans 16:25-26; Ephesians 3:5-6; Ephesians 3:8-10; and elsewhere. But the best statement about this ‘mystery’ comes in the First Letter to Timothy:
Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:
He was revealed in flesh,
vindicated in spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory. (1 Timothy 3:16)
We are part of the mystery and its unfolding. It began with Christ’s coming in the flesh – “the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us (John 1:14).” By my reading of the icon, Mary lifts the veil that had covered God’s purposes from all eternity. The veil is removed – just like the curtain in the Temple – so that the glory of the incarnate Word might be revealed. And what a glory! Seen only by a few, taking place in a cave, a lowly manger, outside a tiny village in one of the byways of the Roman Empire. It just doesn’t get any more ‘glorious’ than that, because God’s idea of glory is very different from man’s ideas of glory.
He was vindicated in spirit. Or is it rather he was vindicated in the Spirit? The Greek ἐδικαιώθη ἐν πνεύματι can be translated either way. The meaning is clear regardless of translation choice. He was revealed in the flesh; and his incarnation was validated, confirmed, in the spirit – his spirit which is the Holy Spirit and which came upon him at his baptism. And here of course is what also happens at every baptism: water immersion of the body, followed by bestowal of the Spirit through confirmation/chrismation. When you bring church tradition into dialogue with a verse from Scripture it’s remarkable how many doors of insight can open.
Paul continues recounting the ‘mystery’: He was seen by angels. I love this phrase. Angels are the witnesses. They witness everything, and are especially captivated by what God does! He was proclaimed among the Gentiles. We are the Gentiles, the inheritors of the apostles’ preaching of the good news. We have been joined to the Jews as one family of faith, so Paul could write “there is no longer Jew or Greek (Gentile),” for we are all one in Christ.
He was believed throughout the world, or at least the world as the apostle knew it. Of course since the time of Paul Christ has been preached quite literally in all the world. But it doesn’t meant that everyone believes in Christ. Even in countries that have a strong Christian foundation in history, more and more people are drifting away from faith in Christ as a result of increasing atheism; but also in response to the corruption that has taken over so many of the churches and people who claim to be Christian. But ultimately it is because there is another ‘mystery’ operating in the world: the “mystery of lawlessness” that Paul spoke about in his second letter to the Thessalonians.
But let’s not talk about ‘lawlessness’ in the week of Christmas. Because Christmas is about glory. There was glory in that quiet, humble, out of the way place where God chose for the greatest miracle to occur. There was glory, and there is still glory where people choose to enter into the mystery. There is glory in the heart of every person who believes, because Christ is forever in glory. Paul concludes the passage in Colossians: he “was taken up (ἀνελήμφθη) in glory” – clearly a reference to Christ’s ascension.
The ascension brought to a close what began at the incarnation. Or, rather, the Ascension made way for Pentecost, which ushered in the age of Spirit and Church. The ‘mystery’ is still unfolding, by the day, by the hour. Christ’s work is done, but the Spirit continues the task of vindicating and validating the ‘mystery’ which was unveiled in that humble byway of the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago. As the church, in the power of the Spirit, we are called upon to continue lifting that veil that Mary is lifting in the inspired icon of George Kordis.
Great indeed is the mystery of our salvation.
CHRIST IS BORN! GLORIFY HIM!