On the occasion of the Holy Feast of Christmas, which marks for Christians around the world the birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ, Romfilatelia introduces into circulation on Thursday, November 12th, this year, the postage stamps issue entitled Christmas 2020, consisting of two stamps, both with a face value of Lei 1.90 and an imperforated souvenir sheet, whose stamp has the value of Lei 29.00.
The coming of God into the world, through the Incarnation of His Son, is the highest proof of the love of the Most Holy Trinity towards men.
The miracle of the Incarnation of the Son of God is the common work of the Persons of the Most Holy Trinity and of the Virgin Mary, so that the Father overshadows her with His power, the Spirit descends upon her, and the Son comes into the human body by the will and faith of the Blessed Virgin.
“When the time has come”, the Holy Archangel Gabriel, a name that comes from the Hebrew and means “God is mighty”, was sent from God to proclaim to the Virgin Mary, and through her to the whole human race, “the hidden mystery of the age” and not grasped by any human or angelic thought.
Icon of the Annunciation
This “beginning of miracles” is illustrated in the icon of the Annunciation, a feast rightened to commemorate the day when the Holy Archangel Gabriel announced to the Blessed Virgin that she would give birth to the Son of God. The feast was placed on March 25th, nine months before the Nativity (December 25th), because then the conception of the divine Baby took place in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The scriptural basis of the feast is found in the first chapter of the Holy Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:26-38).
On the left side of the icon is the Archangel Gabriel, with his right hand outstretched, blessing the Most Holy Virgin Mary, who is on the right side of the icon, while in his left hand, the Archangel Gabriel holds a rod, a symbol of the authority of God’s messenger.
The Archangel Gabriel wears a tunic and himation. His clothes look light, airy, suitable for his incorporeal nature. He is depicted with one wing still in the air, and the other, lowered, as if descending from heaven, before the Virgin, but without stopping from flying, although he is apparently on the ground. The expression on his face is solemn, bright, but gentle.
The Virgin Mary sits on a throne, her legs resting on a pedestal. She wears long clothes that leave only her face, neck and hands exposed. Her face and attitude express modesty, prudence and humbleness. She stands with her head reclined in the direction of the angel. With her right hand she makes a gesture of consent, which illustrates her saving answer: “Fiat”! Her gaze, attitude, and gesture express the words in the Gospel of Luke: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word!”.
The Mother of God is depicted spinning out when the angel makes his appearance. She holds in her hand a spindle on which she unfolds purple, to later weave the curtain of the Temple. This detail symbolizes the fact that the Virgin Mary works, and she herself is, mysteriously, the purple curtain or iconostasis, which no longer separates, but now unites people with God.
On the shoulders and on the head, above the purple garment, the Mother of God wears three little stars, as a sign of perpetual virginity: before, during and after the birth of the Son.
In the background are buildings whose elegant shape enhances the beauty of the composition. Above them, in the middle of the icon, is a representation of the celestial vault in the form of a semicircle, from where a ray of light springs. The light symbolizes the grace of the Holy Spirit. The ray stops near the halo of the Blessed Virgin.
The background is a space that is always open – never in a room – that allows the sky of divine mercy to be seen. The Annunciation is painted in Orthodox churches on the altarpiece or iconostasis, in the register of royal feasts, because it is, in fact, the icon of the conception from the Holy Spirit of the Son of God in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. The scene also appears on the royal doors through which the good news of our salvation is brought to us in the holy services, in its fullest form.
Icon of the Nativity of Our Lord
The Byzantine icon of the Nativity also faithfully illustrates the Gospel episode that depicts the Sacrament of the Nativity of Jesus Christ.
This icon contains all evangelical details, so that the baby’s bath announces Baptism, the cave symbolizes the darkness of people’s sin, and the light of the Baby wrapped in white diapers shows God’s victory over darkness, sin and death; all these symbols actually illustrate the death and resurrection of Christ and implicitly the salvation of the human race.
The manger in which the Baby rests is an altar in the shape of a tomb.
The icon of the Nativity shows baby Jesus in the centre of the composition, with his head in the axis of an invisible cross that structures the whole. In the same line with the star, the “heavenly body” mentioned by the Evangelist Matthew (2:2) and which was already symbolizing in pagan iconography the presence of the deity, the three rays descending from the sky over the Baby mark the Trinitarian participation in the event. With a gentle appearance, the Virgin Mary is placed on a layer of purple, a sign of royalty, because her divine motherhood makes her the Mother of God, as the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus also teaches (431). She is the one who gave birth to This Baby, without the distrustful Joseph, marginalized in the icon, according to a setting aside for pedagogical purpose underestimated in Western-type Nativities. Mary seems to meditate deeply on the events to come: the sufferings, the cross, the tomb. Her gaze transcends the present without stopping strictly on her Son, as a mother generally does, which gives the scene a prophetic element.
Also represented are the angels who proclaimed to the shepherds “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people (…) for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:9-15).
Thus, the first witnesses of the birth of Christ are not the strong or rich of the city, nor the philosophers or sages of the people, but the simple shepherds, humble and watchful people, whose loneliness is transformed into joy.
If the pastors represent the Jewish people, the magi personify the pagan world. Of different origins and races, they emphasize the universality of salvation brought by the Baby Jesus. Connoisseurs of the motion of the stars, having knowledge of astrology, they are led by the star to Christ, the creator of the heavenly bodies, the Light of the light that illuminates mankind.
Testimony of their faith, the triple gift proves to be full of significance: gold, a royal gift, so important in the icon whose background is called light, is what has been cleansed in the fiery furnace; incense, a sacrifice to God, accompanies prayer; as for myrrh, which is both a anointing for healing, it is brought to the One who will die and rise from the grave. Different in origin and race, these Magi are also of different ages. The presence of a young man, a man in the prime of life and an old man represents the whole mosaic of the three ages of life. All places and all times are called to Christ, the Eternal, Who enters our time.
The presence of animals near the new-born Baby fulfils Isaiah’s prophecy: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.” (Isaiah 1:3).
Hunchbacked under the burden of doubt, Joseph rebels against the mystery of this virgin birth.
An episode borrowed from the apocryphal, the scene of the bathing of Jesus accompanied by midwives reminds us that the incarnate God is no different on the outside from any other child, but is subject to human habits. And the earth, figured in the form of a mountain, gives the impression of leaping with joy for the coming of the Saviour of this world.
The icon of the Nativity of Our Lord is full of beauty, and beauty includes its aesthetic value, evangelical and theological connotations, and God’s boundless love for us.
Icon of the Mother of Our Lord with the Baby
The Mother of Our Lord occupies a central place in the worship and iconography of the Orthodox Church, due to the fact that she is the one who gave birth in the flesh to the Son of God and also “the first human being who achieved the purpose of the Incarnation – the deification of man”. Her representations distinguish from those of the saints both by the diversity of iconographic types and by the piety with which they are honoured by the congregation.
The Orthodox Church reserved a cult of super-worship to the Mother of God and proclaimed her at the Third Ecumenical Council (Ephesus, 431), Theotokos, meaning “God-bearer”. This special honour was also reflected in ecclesiastical Christian art, as evidenced by the place that the representations of the Immaculate Mother occupy in the iconographic programme of Orthodox churches: the Altar Vault and the icon on the left side of the royal doors, as a pendant of the icon of Christ, to list only the most important.
According to the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, the icon of the Mother of God, like that of the Saviour Christ, has an apostolic origin. The Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke is credited with painting the first icons of the Blessed Virgin, which, although not preserved to this day, led to the formation of three major iconographic types present to date in Orthodox iconography: Eleusa, Hodegetria and Orans.
The Mother of God is depicted in clothing specific to the ancient dress, with her hair covered. She wears a long tunic to the ground, usually blue or dark green, being fastened to the wrists with sleeves, made of an ochre-gold colour. A dark purple-red maphorion is applied over the tunic. It is like a wide cloak, covering the head, shoulders and arms, reaching to the level of the knees, with edges seamed with gold thread and usually adorned with fringes. On the maphorion are applied three stars – in front of the forehead and on the two shoulders – which always symbolize the virginity of the Mother of God: before, during and after the Birth of the Saviour Christ. Under the maphorion, on the head, there is a white covering, which keeps the hair tight. If the blue colour of the tunic symbolizes the full purity of the Blessed Virgin, on the other hand, the red of the maphorion highlights the divine motherhood of the Mother of God, the fact that through her the Son of God incarnated in man.
Like any Orthodox icon, the representations of the Mother of God bear certain specific inscriptions. The most important is the one that emphasizes her quality as God-bearer. It usually appears in Greek letters ΜΡ ΘΥ, abbreviation for Μητερ του Θεου, which translates into Romanian as “Mother of God”.
The royal icon of the God-bearer, from the iconostasis of the National Cathedral, depicts the Mother of God sitting on a throne, provided with a pedestal for her feet, holding the Baby on her knees, Who carries a rotulus in his left hand, while blessing with his right hand. The holy archangels Michael and Gabriel frame the image of the Mother of God.
The icons of the Annunciation and the Nativity of Our Lord are illustrated on the two stamps of the series, and on the stamp of the imperforated souvenir sheet is reproduced the image of the icon of the Mother of Our Lord with Baby Jesus, icons on the iconostasis of the Cathedral of the Salvation of the Nation.
The stamp of the imperforated souvenir sheet has a silver replica, displayed in a special thematic album.
Romfilatelia thanks His Beatitude Father Daniel, Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church, for the documentary support given to the development of this postage stamps issue.