And she gave birth to her first born Son and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn. -Luke2:7
Every Nativity play I have ever watched has a scene where Mary and Joseph go to an inn and are told that there are no rooms available. They are, however, told that there is a stable out back and are shown to a barn where the animals are kept, where Jesus is born and laid in a manger. Every Nativity scene appearing under every Christmas tree shows a barn with a straw roof and wooden walls with Jesus laying in a manger.
Yet every Orthodox icon shows Jesus Christ incarnate in a cave, in the desert, outside of Bethlehem. Why a cave? Why not the traditionally depicted barn or stable?
We are not told in scripture whether the birth took place in a barn or a cave, only that there was no room in the inn. There are two reasons that a cave is shown in Orthodox icons, rather than a barn. The first is actually historical. At the time of the Nativity, animals were not kept sheltered in wooden barns, but in caves and recesses in the hills. The second is symbolic-the cave that is shown in the icons is traditionally surrounded by sharp and steep rocks, which represent the cruel world into which Jesus was Incarnate. The space inside the cave looks peaceful and welcoming. The cave represents heaven. It is a peaceful respite from the world.
There is an icon that shows the cave, with the manger and the baby Jesus, with just the animals surrounding the manger and the star overhead. The theme of this icon is “Creation worships the Creator.” The significance of the feast of the Nativity is that the Creator came to live with His creation. Not only was there no room at any inn, but there was no room in any place made by human hands to hold the Creator of those hands. So, the Creator came to be part of His creation in a cave He Himself created.
In the last reflection, it was mentioned that in icons, the manger is depicted symbolically as a tomb. Historically, the manger was the wooden trough from where the animals were eating. Most likely it would have been filled with hay, which horses were eating. Again, there was no bed made by human beings that could hold the Creator. So, He was laid on straw, in wood that He created. His birth also reflects the most humble of beginnings. And it begins a ministry where Jesus would tell His followers: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:43-45).”
The cave reflects peace, surrounded by danger. The manger shows humility. Later on, when we discuss how all of creation worshipped and brought gifts to the Creator in its midst, we will note that the earth itself worshipped the Creator, and for a gift, the earth offered a cave.
For today, examine peace and humility in your life. Does your life favor what is grandiose or simple? Are you more boastful or humble? If the cave reflects peace surrounded by danger, are you able to find inner peace in a life that is continually dangerous? Or have you succumbed to the dangers of the world? Today’s verse is an important reminder of what is truly important-the virtues of peace and humility will go a long way in helping you grow as a Christian this Advent and far beyond it.
Today’s hymn comes from a set of Katavasias (seasonal hymns in the Orthros service) which will be sung from November 21 through December 25. It references the mystery of the Nativity, noting the cave (which the translator has translated as “grotto” but in the Greek language appears as “spileon”which is usually translated as “cave”). These Katavasias begin with the bold announcement, “Christ is born, glorify Him!” and end with this hymn. Tomorrow on the Liturgical calendar, as the church celebrates the feast of the Entrance of the Virgin Mary into the temple, we will hear this announcement during the service for the first time this liturgical year, the announcement that the journey to the manger has begun.
I see here a strange and paradoxical mystery. For, behold, the grotto is heaven; cherubic throne is the Virgin; the manger a grand space in which Christ our God the uncontainable reclined as a babe; Whom in extolling do we magnify. (Katavasias of the Nativity. Trans. Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
May your cave (your home, your work, your space) have peace today!
~Father Stavros N. Akrotirianakis, LET ALL CREATION REJOICE: Reflections for Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany