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At Christmas, Father Anthony Salzman offers an icon of the Nativity — and a message

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"The Nativity is a now moment for us," says Father Anthony. "‘Σήμερον Χριστός Γεννάται.’ Today Christ is Born!

 
The Birth of Christ "written" by Father Anthony Salzman and Aris Kovaci and inspired by a manuscript in Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mt. Sinai. (Crèchemania Collection.) 


 
Written in pencil, in a child's script, Greek lyrics to a Christmas carol — A desire to sing along and be a part of Christmas in America. 
The first snowflakes signal the yearly ritual of taking paper nativities out of display cases to decorate the Crèche Tree.

With Crèche Tree trimmed and lit, I sit at the piano bench, a stack of Christmas music at my side, tunes I first heard in the New World.

Leafing through the pages I notice hand writting just below the printed words to “O Holy Night,” (see image at left). I put on my reading glasses and see words I had written almost five decades ago in a faint pencil script. Simple and unrhymed words, my Greek version of this beautiful carol penned by a thirteen-year-old who desperately wanted to sing along. To be a part of Christmas in America.

You might have guessed that these songs — I didn’t know they were called “carols” — became dear to my heart. They were an echo of an America that lay just beyond the loving enclave that was the Greek Community in Sioux City, Iowa, in the mid-1960s.

But America might as well have been light years away, because my adoptive parents, who were almost seventy, no longer owned a car.

Did I ever imagine then that one day I would drive the length and breadth of America In Search of the Nativity, the upcoming iconography book I have been photographing the last few years?

From Florida to Alaska, from California to Newfoundland — just in the last year-and-a-half the Mini Cooper has logged 76,000 miles — it’s been a wondrous journey. I’m thinking of the book as a visual pilgrimage, reminiscent of the ones I made as a boy with my mom on horseback in Greece.

An armchair-traveler’s Nativity guide to churches, cathedrals, basilicas, monasteries, convents, museums, and art collections in the United States and Canada. The Nativity in brilliant stained glass, carved wood, marble, stone, brass, mosaic, canvas, and — dear to my heart — Byzantine iconography.

What an inspiring, enriching experience it has been. What wonderful, caring people I have crossed paths with. I’ll be telling you about them in the book, but there’s one I would like you to meet right now.

“This is Father Anthony; please tell me about your iconography book. It’s something I’ve been thinking of writing after I retire.”

This is how I met Father Anthony Salzman, Presiding Priest of St. Philothea Greek Orthodox Church in Watkinsville, Georgia. I had been looking for Father Anthony since I saw his Nativity in a church in Ohio, and here he was calling me.

Next day, in his studio I felt as though I had known him for years. Father Anthony’s warm welcome, easy manner, and beautiful iconography turned a photo session into a day long visit — Father Anthony with his brush on a scaffolding, “writing” a large icon (Byzantine iconography is said to be “written,” not “painted”) — and I, with my tape recorder running, and camera clicking.

I photographed a portable icon of the Nativity on wood and a gold-leaf ground that day, and it occurred to me to mention to Father Anthony my idea of commissioning icons of the Nativity from the iconographers I met during my journey.

Father Anthony hand-delivered his a few weeks ago en route to Minneapolis for Thanksgiving. I was overwhelmed — my first “written” icon of the Nativity, set in gold and bordered by an unusual raised, painted frame.

“In Mt. Sinai, there’s a very famous icon from the late 13th century, of Ethiopian-Armenian influence,” Father Anthony says. “It contains the Nativity and the Crucifixion on one panel to show the relationship between the Nativity and the Crucifixion, why Christ came into the world. There is a frame around that icon that inspired me: simple, enhancing, not taking away from the icon. It’s all about the joy of the Nativity.

"It takes a great culture to capture the beauty of the Nativity as well as that icon does. Its frame has diamonds and gold, and around it almost child-like painting. Simple, but it matches the spirit of joy of in the icon.

 
Father Anthony Salzman at his Byzantine iconography studio outside Watkinsville, Georgia. 
“The prototype is a manuscript in St. Catherine’s Monastery, in Mt. Sinai. A talented young iconographer from Greece who now lives in Atlanta, Aris Kovaci, and I worked on it together. We started in August, when I did the drawing and worked back-and-forth: he did the mountains and the garments, I did the faces; he did finishing touches, I added the frame around it. We finished just before Thanksgiving.

“The setting is hilly with different scenes: Joseph, the washing of Jesus, the shepherds, of course the Star of Bethlehem, and the angels, which are critical to the whole expression.

“The magi, who read the prophesies and followed the star, are bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We understand the gold to be the gift for a King, frankincense the gift for a High Priest, and myrrh for the Anointed One, the Messiah.

“We find Christ in a cave, wrapped in swaddling that look like grave clothes, placed in a tomb rather than a manger.

“There’s the ox and the ass: the artist of the Mt. Sinai icon put in lots of expression into them, alluding to Isaiah 1:3: ‘The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib…’ Their wonder is that they first ministered to Christ, keeping Him warm on a cold night.”

I mention Joseph whose body language — turned away as he is from the Nativity — speaks of his uncomprehension of the miracle unfolding before (or should I say behind?) him.

“Joseph has turned away from the miracle,” Father Anthony says. “Look at his head, it’s almost twisted back. I’m sure we’ve all been in a situation like that, at the end of our understanding, not knowing where to go from here. He was at that point: wanting to do the right thing. He was a just and righteous man, but he had to reconcile, to wrestle with the reality of the Virgin Mary bearing a son. Thankfully, an angel relieved him of his dilemma.

“As Christmas approaches, it’s a perfect time to focus on that reality and what it means for us today. How do we apply that to our lives? How does the dynamic reality of God becoming man affect us? This is a time of prayer. In Greece, the faithful attend forty liturgies leading up to the Celebration of the Nativity. We can’t quite sustain that in our small parish, but we try to do ten liturgies, from the Feast of St. Spyridon to December 25.

“The Nativity is the incarnational aspect, that Christ did not stay in the heavens where there is perfect love and harmony and peace. The Nativity is really a story of self-emptying, αυτοκένωσης aftokénosis in Greek: He lays aside His glory for the other. We find this to be the very heart and nature of God. So for us to follow Christ means having to follow that same model of self-emptying. In that is the glory. Christ enters the messiness of this world, the dilemmas, the challenges, the sin, and shows us how to be God-like. He takes on flesh, so that we can take on spirit.

“I distinctly remember in college, long before I became Orthodox, going to a church on a Christmas Eve, and trying to feel the importance of Christmas. Now, when I see the Nativity, it’s an inspiration.

“We see Joseph, and we understand doubt. We see the kings who fall down and worship Him, the shepherds, the simple people, to whom the miracle was first revealed and who were the first to come and worship Christ. Then it all comes together. Then we, as we say in the Orthodox Church, transcend time and space, in the Divine Liturgy and in the Church. So the Nativity is a now moment for us: ‘Σήμερον Χριστός Γεννάται.’ (Símeron Christós Gennáte.) Today Christ is Born!

“The more we unravel the mystery, the more profound awe we feel. And every year, something new comes. We come to the same service, but we’re not the same people: because of a year of spiritual growth; a year of trials and tribulations; a year of new understanding; a year of new opportunity. We celebrate the Birth of Christ and then comes the new year, and Epiphany, and other Feast Days that give us hope and energy to keep going forward.

“This is what I’ve been preaching all week. That worship is the key to why we were created. It puts everything in order. We can work hard for the church, we can sacrifice, and cook, and bake, and sell spaghetti dinner tickets, but when we come to worship then we unleash the power of the Holy Spirit in prayer. Worship is the foundation for a spiritual life. By our intercessions and our prayers we unleash the power of God.”

So, what’s the message of Christmas?

“Joy to the world, the Lord has come!” Father Anthony says.

I know exactly what carol I'll be playing next.

Merry Christmas!

—Alexis

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