In Byzantium the Icon is (not an additional, but the only proper) school for all the members of the Church. Perhaps the first thing one learns for the Birth of Christ in this school is to think about the Birth abandoning a sentimental perception that would make a projection of our every day experiences from our families. Then one sees in the centre of the Icon the Mother of God and the baby, but separately! Mary only seldom (in few icons) is occupied with Christ.
Contrary to the animals that are as close to Him as they can and without the mediation of thinking, the Mother of God thinks instead of having an immediate relationship – thinking about the meaning of the Birth, as we do looking at the Icon, or about the temptation of Josef, or about something else – in any case, she is the first inside the Icon that invites us to think, to acquire a reasoned awareness of the Birth.
We will see later the purpose of this invitation. At present we keep thinking on the Icon, and staying at the centre of it we see the baby in a box, of which we can’t tell if it is a bed or a coffin, ‘dressed’ also as a dead man.
Contrary to the western religious paintings, in the Byzantine Icon Christ is born almost inside His grave, into a rock that denotes Golgotha – and there is often a huge Cross that divides the rock of His birth.
This is, then, the reason why the Byzantine Icon invites thinking: in order to impede us from celebrating the Birth slap-happy with inkles, it reminds that being born in this world is the first step to dying, and mainly that, if this happens to us to help us return to the first and original condition of our unity with God, it happens to Christ because our salvation ‘demands’ it – He in Himself has no reason at all to suffer all this. Therefore, the Icon transfers us to a Birth that is a Sacrifice, or, in other words, it understands the Birth as part of the Passion to such a degree, that the fulness of joy is impossible – the fulness of joy is postponed to the Easter, the Resurrection.
This is why in Orthodoxy Easter is the most important feast. We live then fully the sadness and the joy — the Passion, the Death, the Glory and the Resurrection — , having only a simple foretaste of all of them in Christmas.
In the West, on the contrary, because hope returned horribly to this passing life, death lost its sacred dimensions and is just rejected, we live as if there was no death, and Resurrection is not important anymore, so that the divine birth has become a symbol of welfare (celebrated sometimes even by non-Christians!), a kind of carnival, the center of which is not even in the picturesque manger but in a ho-ho-ho fatso, sledges, pets and bells…