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.