Mary and the baby Jesus are not seasonal.
At Christmastime, American Christians, otherwise somewhat iconoclastic, are apparently more free to enjoy the mother and child icon of Mary and her son Jesus. And thankfully so.
In the Orthodox church, this icon is not a seasonal option. It stands at the very front of every Orthodox church in the world, at all times, always to the right of the icon of Christ (see example below). This icon to Christ’s right (remember those arguments about who would be there?) is indeed an icon of Mary. But we forget that even more so, it is an icon of the Divine Christ, just like the nearby icon, but as an infant. He was no less God Himself at a young age. We worship him as an adult man, but like the Magi, we also worship him as an infant.
What does it do to the psyche of people when they worship and venerate a baby? Among other things, it instills a respect for infants. They are treasured. In this culture of death we currently navigate, our society could use some more subliminal, subconscious reminders of the precious nature of preborn and infant life.
Our society also desperately needs an injection of focusing on the weakest among us. For thousands of years, traditional cultures have circled the wagons to protect their youngest members. Men chose to die to protect these innocents. In the old movies, the “women and children” were the first allowed to flee danger or escape a sinking ship.
Today, we hear about “might makes right.” We hear about “survival of the fittest.” We hear about “be all you can be” and “self-actualization.” A useless crying infant gets in the way of all that.
The mother and child icon is a constant reminder to us that all our strength and energy is given to protect the weakest among us. The final goal is not great wealth, grand accomplishments, making a name for ourselves, or a nest egg to kick back and enjoy life. Our gifts and talents are ultimately for raising and protecting the children of our community and caring for the elderly, handicapped, homeless and others cast aside.
This is what binds society together. This is what makes men productive instead of wastrels, whether in the form of gamblers and substance abusers or country club narcissists. Without the image of a helpless Christ, we are reduced to pre-Christian goals of conquering and enslaving to support our self-centered vision of life.
“A little child will lead them,” wrote the prophet (Isaiah 11:6). I can’t help but think he had a foreshadowing sense of this icon of the infant Christ that would be worshipped and venerated across the world in every traditional church throughout the ages. A little child is indeed leading us. And so is an undefeated grown man, who also chooses weakness as a means to ultimate victory. The two work together, as we adore both images of Christ … all year round.
This video provides glimpses of the prominence of the mother and child icon in a typical Orthodox Church.