My Advent reading this year was a book by our archbishop, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, called Christmas - Myth Becomes Reality: Meditations on the Incarnation (Weihnacht - Mythos wird Wirklichkeit: Meditationen zur Menschwerdung). The fact that I finished it in only 25 short days means that it can likely only be considered a book in the most general sense of the word—two essays bound with a cover would be more accurate. In any case, I found the second essay, about the symbolic language of Christmas icons in the Eastern tradition, incredibly interesting because it introduced me to a different way of depicting the Nativity than I had ever seen before. Some of the typical elements are, paraphrasing Cardinal Schönborn (see the icon above, from the school of Andrei Rublev, 1410 - 1430, as a reference):
Once I understood the language of the icon, I found it incredibly moving. It simultaneously emphasizes the reality and mystery of the scene. Mary is shown lying down, exhausted, instead of kneeling and adoring the baby like a typical Western Nativity scene, which should sound about right to anyone that has ever attended a birth. The midwives are there, drawing the bath, which—regardless of whether they were actually at the birth or not—serves as a reminder that there was an actual baby that needed care like any other. But I especially love the depiction of Joseph, unable to comprehend the magnitude of what has happened and perhaps even unsure of what to believe. Even after having been visited by the angel in his dream, he still can't understand or beat back his doubts about what is happening to him because the mystery is so great. How can it be? Yet it is.
Merry Christmas, everyone!