So he took her off the donkey and said to her, “Where will I take you and shelter you in your awkwardness? This area is a desert.”
And he found a cave and led her there and stationed his sons to watch her, while he went to a find a Hebrew midwife in the land of Bethlehem.
~ Protevangelium of James, 17.3(10)-18.1(1)
Last Friday, Orthodox Christians like myself began the liturgical season of Advent (most Christians have a few more weeks to go). For the Orthodox, this season is comparable to Great Lent. We fast through the whole period, but it is a lighter fast until the last two weeks. Basically we eat fish instead of being totally vegan, but it is a wonderful season of spiritual reflection nonetheless.
In any case, the point of this sort of fast, other than the much needed extended period of self-denial, is to prepare us for an upcoming feast. Great Lent precedes Pascha (Easter). A fast of variable length (anywhere from a month to not at all) precedes the Feast of the Apostles (at the end of June). A two week fast precedes the Dormition of the Theotokos (Assumption of Mary). And leading up to Nativity (Christmas), as I said, we fast as well. This fast is followed by the longest fast-free period, the twelve days of Christmas, which culminate in Theophany (the Baptism of Christ).
What I find fascinating about these major fasting periods, is that three of the four lead up to events that took place at a cave. (The other, the Feast of the Apostles, does not commemorate an event but a group of people, so no specific geography is attached to it.)
This might come as a surprise to some, but it turns out that Jesus was not born in a seventeenth-century German stable. No, he was born in a first century stable in Palestine, which I am told by reliable sources is mostly a rocky region of the earth—it would have been common for people to use caves as stables.
Thus, we have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the location of this second-century elaboration on the Christmas story. If Jesus was born in a stable, then he was born in a cave. The version in the Bible comes from the Gospel According to St. Luke:
Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:5-7)
That’s it: “laid him in a manger.” No one reading this at the time it was written (late first century) would have imagined a seventeenth-century German stable, that we can be sure of. No, they would have imagined a cave, and no doubt this would not be taken lightly.
Most often in the Scriptures, caves are places of hiding and refuge when being pursued.
When the Midianites prevailed against Israel, the people “made for themselves the dens, the caves, and the strongholds which are in the mountains” (Judges 6:2).
When David fled from Saul, he came to Acish, king of Gath. Acish’s men recognized David, so he feigned madness to disguise his identity, “scratch[ing] on the doors of the gate, and let[ting] his saliva fall down on his beard” (1 Samuel 21:13). The plan worked, and he fled from there and hid in a cave (1 Samuel/1 Kingdoms 22:1).
Generations later, we read of the evil queen of the northern kingdom: “while Jezebel massacred the prophets of the Lord … Obadiah had taken one hundred prophets and hidden them, fifty to a cave, and had fed them with bread and water” (1 Kings/3 Kingdoms 18:4).
And again, when the prophet Elijah fled the same Jezebel after besting the prophets of Baal in a contest, “he went into a cave” (1 Kings/3 Kingdoms 19:9) at Horeb, the mountain of God. There a strong wind blew, “but the Lord was not in the wind.” An earthquake shook the ground, “but the Lord was not in the earthquake.” Then a fire burned, “but the Lord was not in the fire.” Finally, “after the fire” there was “a still small voice,” and the Lord was in the voice (1 Kings/3 Kingdoms 19:11-12). The Lord came to Elijah in the cave through the most humble means, foreshadowing the Nativity.
Thus when we hear of Jesus Christ being born in a stable, and therefore in a cave, we might wonder if his Mother and Joseph had any reason to seek refuge like Israel, David, or Elijah and the prophets. And, in fact, they did. The local king, Herod, had heard of a prophesy of a king to be born of the line of David, and he sought to find out when and where this would take place, doing everything he could to find and exterminate Jesus, even massacring the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem.
It is in a cave that the Son of God finds refuge from the evil of this world. It is in a cave that
The people who walked in darkness
Have seen a great Light….
As we begin this liturgical journey, we look forward to the refuge that cave offers us as well, from the evil and violence of this world and the darkness of our errant ways, lives lived seeking our own gain at the cost of our own souls.
The Virgin Mother of God is there, giving birth miraculously, in a way that sanctifies both motherhood and virginity, both parenthood and singleness. And through her we receive the greatest gift of all: Jesus Christ. The Creator of all is born into time. The Life of the World nurses at a Virgin’s breast. Here, in this cave, all our desires and fears and conceptions and rationalizations are shattered by the mystery of divine love.
As the Church year progresses, in a cave, too, Christ himself will rise from the dead. In a cave, he will receive his Mother when she has ended her days as a good and faithful servant.
So we journey to this cave of Christ’s Nativity. Whether we are rich in this world like the Magi or blue-collar workers like the shepherds, all are welcome and, indeed, the last of this world are welcomed first. At the Christmas cave the standards of this world are turned on their heads. In darkness the light shines, just as, through his resurrection, in death life is triumphant.
Let us deny ourselves then, for this little while in this little way, that we may come to the Feast having already left behind the cares of this life, with our hearts and minds ready to be enlightened by the dawning of the “Dayspring from on high” (Luke 1:78).