Advent icons can aid preparation for Christmas

November 25, 2013

Catholics are called to prepare spiritually for Christmas by looking into the life and journey of Christ, says the bishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Edmonton.

Bishop David Motiuk compared Christmas to a book, saying we just can't only read the last chapter but the whole book page by page.

"Christianity is a journey which requires preparation and, in order to prepare well for it, you need to take time to prepare the home, to prepare the table and to prepare ourselves spiritually," the bishop said Nov. 16.

Motiuk led a weekend retreat Nov. 15-17 at Providence Renewal Centre on how to prepare for Christmas through the use of icons.

"I was invited to help people prepare for Christmas, Advent," he said in an interview. "So I thought how we can do that? Maybe through the story of the icons."

Icons present a "beautiful theology" of Scripture and tradition through which one can reflect on the mystery of God, he said.

The bishop picked three icons for the retreat. The first is the Annunciation icon where the Archangel Gabriel tells Mary she is the Mother of God. The second is the Nativity icon and the third is the icon of Jesus' baptism.

"All of these tell the same story. With the icon of the Annunciation the beginning of salvation is announced to Mary and to the world," he said. "Then nine months later she physically gives birth to Christ the child."

The small icons can be seen at St. Josaphat's Cathedral. They are part of a series written in Ukraine and brought to St. Josaphat's to be used in worship.

Through the icon of the Annunciation, participants were reminded that God had long been preparing humanity to receive the message of salvation. At the feast of the Annunciation, we see the unfolding of that plan.

"Mary, through the workings of the Holy Spirit, becomes pregnant with the Christ Child. So in our own personal lives we reflect on this great mystery of salvation. But we are also called, like the Mother of God, to be the Christ bearer," Motiuk says.


"Like Mary, we are called to be the bearers of Christ to our family members, our neighbors, our friends, strangers."

The second icon, the Nativity icon, enables our immediate preparation for the birth of Christ.

"We see here, in this icon, a most strange God and a most wonderful God at the same time because God becoming a man affords an opportunity for man to become God," Motiuk said, quoting an early Church father.

In the Nativity icon, figures from the Old and the New testaments help tell the story of "a God who wants to draw near to us so that we can draw near to him."

The figures in the icon help us to live that story, the bishop said.

The angels are God's messengers who also sing God's praises. The shepherds receive the Good News that God is going to be born. "So they travel and they kneel in adoration of the Christ child."

The Nativity icon also shows the three wise men who have travelled from the east to present their gifts. It also presents St. Joseph in conversation with an old man (Satan) who tries to tempt Joseph to abandon Mary and the child, Motiuk said.

"He (Satan) says, 'Joseph, do you really think that that's your child or is it from another man? Who has ever heard of a virgin birth?"

Then, there are the midwives who by tradition helped Joseph and Mary in the birthing process.

The icon also includes a representation of the Trinity, of heaven breaking into earth, "and so we see a symbol of God the Father, we see a representation through light and the Holy Spirit enlightening the Christ child, pointing to the Christ child."

During the retreat, Motiuk explained each icon to the nearly 40 participants. He also asked each participant to reflect on the icons and then share how God was speaking to them through the figures or scenes depicted in each icon.


The third icon was that of Our Lord's baptism as he began his public ministry. "In the icon you see Christ in the River Jordan as a fully grown man receiving baptism from the hand of John the Baptist."

"I'm hoping by focusing on the icon of our Lord's baptism that we will remember our own Baptism," Motiuk said. "God rejoices in our willingness to say 'yes' to him and to follow him."

Our Baptism is only the beginning and, in our daily lives, "we are called to renew our 'yes' to God in prayer, in good works, in fasting, in recognizing the need of others and responding to them," he said. "The baptismal icon is a call to action on our part."