It is traditionally understood that Christ’s nativity was in a cave (not in a stable). The cave served as a stable – not unusual for the area of Bethlehem. However, the traditional icon of Christ’s nativity reveals the cave in an unmistakeable manner. The cave of Bethlehem resembles the cave of Hades into which Christ descends at His death. It also resembles the space framed by the rocks in most icons of Christ’s baptism. The same space can be seen on most icons of the crucifixion (beneath the cross and framing a skull). This iconographic similarity is not accidental. The cave of Bethlehem is meant to resemble the cave of Hades (just as the child in swaddling clothes resembles a body wrapped for burial). It resembles the cave of Hades for the same reason that the space framed by the rocks at Christ’s theophany resembles the cave of Hades. They are pointing to one and the same thing: Christ Incarnation is God’s descent into our world where sin and death reign. The incarnation of the Word is immediately a challenge to the darkness of death and hell.
St. John makes this clear in the prologue of his gospel. He speaks of Christ as the “Light of the world,” and within the same breath brings that Light into conflict with the darkness: “the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
The story of Christ’s nativity is certainly marked by elements that have become popular in our greeting-card world. Angels sing to shepherds. Wisemen journey from afar. The ox and ass know their master.
But in typical fashion, greeting cards leave Christmas with pleasant thoughts. After all, the cultural Christmas looks no further than the presents beneath the tree.
The Church, however, sees the cave of Bethlehem for what it is: the darkness. No sooner is the Child born than His life is in danger. The wicked king Herod seeks to kill Him and, failing in his first plot, turns his wrath on every child under the age of two in the area. Tradition holds that the number of the innocents slaughtered by Herod’s men approached 14,000. Such is the darkness.
The same darkness marks the world to our day. The Light still shines and the darkness does not overcome it – but it is in darkness that the Light shines. The cave is the world – make no mistake.
Those who are baptized into Christ are baptized into His death according to St. Paul. It is also true that those who are baptized into Christ “receive the Light of Christ.” But to participate in the Light of Christ in this world is to be light in the midst of darkness.
But the great joy of Christmas is that the child born in the cave is indeed the Light of the world – and though we find ourselves in darkness – the darkness cannot overcome the Light. The revelation of Christ at Christmas is the same as the revelation of Christ at Pascha. Every revelation of Christ is victory over sin and death.
What’s in the cave? God Himself.
“Prepare yourself O Cavern, for the Virgin approaches to give birth to her Son; be glad and rejoice O Bethlehem Land of Judah, for from you our Lord shines forth as the Dawn; give ear you Mountains and Hills and all the Lands around Judea for Christ has come to save humanity whom He created and whom He loves.”
Thank you for these words Fr. Stephen.
Fr Stephen, thank you for this reflection on the symbolism of the cave. It’s all too tempting to replace the cave with a non-descript wooden stable of no threat. But Christ come into the world to overcome the darkness, most importantly the darkness that reigns in our own hearts. Glory to God!
Happy name day, Father.
May all of your deacons be of St. Stephen’s caliber.
I have been blessed in my Deacon (Deacon Kevin). He has a fine theological mind (and can preach well) – serves well and is a good friend. You could hardly ask for more.
I have been well-served in my name saint. Unlike many converts, I retained my name when I was received into the Church. It seemed to me that St. Stephen had always looked out for me. As an Anglican I served at two churches named for St. Stephen – which seemed more than coincidental to me. I am honored in my present parish to have a tiny relic of St. Stephen – which has seemed to me to make of St. Anne’s also a St. Stephen’s. There is also a relic of St. Anne, and of St. Basil the Great, and a number of others – treasures given to the parish by a beloved priest friend.
Being a Southerner, I have a double name. My birth name is James Stephen, though I’ve always gone by my middle name. But this Sunday after the Nativity (which is always the feast of St. James) is also occasionally the feast of St. Stephen (Dec. 27 in the East). Thus it is my double-name day, very auspicious indeed!
Many years to all of the James’s who visit the site – and to my fellow Stephen’s!
Thank you for this, Father Stephen. Would you object to it being reproduced on my parish website for our Christmas, (with due acknowledgement, of course)? I love the Anastasis icon and often ponder on the empty cave with the shattered tools of bondage strewn, useless and poweless, on the ground. The connection with the cave of Bethelehem is somehting that I had never before considered and I would love to share it.
Please feel free to use it. I am honored.
Thank you, Father. 🙂
Seems that onlywhen I’m out of church that I forget all this. Thanks for reminding me. Been orthodox 20 years + but still forgetful, it seems. Lord, have mercy!
Being one of those people who is thankful when Christmas is over due to family sorrows and stress, I appreciate the orthodox perspective on how every feast (other than Pascha) is mixed with the sadness and awareness of our dark and suffering world. There are no delusional expectations of perfection, but there is great peace is knowing that Christ is in our midst. May He shine in the cave of my heart.
Thank you for this posting, Fr. Stephen!
Wonderful post Father. The Feasts all point towards (and are an expression of) Pascha.