I am re-running this Art and Beauty Tuesday post from last year since I have been getting some new comments on it.
In the center we see a star. I think we know innately from the representation, that this is *the* star. It seems to encompass many stars together, which, interestingly, is one theory on how the star of Bethlehem occurred. The sky is gold, showing the Divinity that is present. We see the angels guiding both the magi and the shepherds, for it is God who sent the star and God who sends His messengers to each person in the Nativity story.
We notice in the center, that Jesus was born in a cave, not a barn the way we think of it today. These caves were the home of the livestock and animals. The inns were often built over the caves, using the heat of the animals to heat the building above.
Two things are apparent about St. Joseph. The first is, he is shown on the lower left of the picture, away from Mary and Jesus, who are the true center of the Nativity story. Joseph is shown "entertaining doubt", represented by an old man. Joseph has a halo. He is holy and ultimately listens to God's direction. But he doubts. He has difficulty accepting what is occurring. His position away from the Mother and Child also shows that he is not the biological father of Christ. That is the Holy Spirit.
Joseph is also shown as a grey haired older man. It has been known from ancient times that Joseph and Mary were not a "couple" in the traditional sense. Tradition, both in the East and West, says that Joseph was an older man, possibly a widower, who may have been Mary's guardian. When Mary was too old to serve in the Temple, [i.e., after the ritual impurity associated with menstruation] Joseph was said to have become betrothed to her as a means of continuing that legal guardianship. His concern and doubts regarding her pregnancy take on a new urgency in light of this type of relationship.
On the bottom right of the icon, we see midwives bathing the newly born Christ. This reminds us that Jesus was born as all men are and needed care as any helpless infant would.
If we peel back another layer, we see an even deeper symbolism in the Nativity Icon. The cave in which Christ is born is the same type of location as the cave from which He is resurrected. Jesus was wrapped "in swaddling cloths" which echo the burial cloths that He is wrapped in after death.
The washing of the infant Christ from the midwives is a reminder that He will submit to baptism by John the Baptist at the beginning of His earthly ministry.
So many of us have lost so much of the Christmas Story--in fact, of the entire story of Christ. So many of us have forgotten, or have never been taught, the endless richness that is in Scripture.
Let us never stop searching for continued meaning in our spiritual tradition.