29 December 2015

5th day of Christmas: Jesus' birth in a Cave?

Photo taken from Google Art Project/ Wikimedia http://bit.ly/22vw277
The icon of Jesus' Birth depicts Jesus being born in a cave. Yet, most nativity scenes have Jesus being born in a stable.

Some thoughts on what's going on:

 1. Thanks to a very knowledgeable and hospitable volunteer at the Ikon Museum in Kampen, Matthijs and I learned quite a bit about icons, including how icons are all copies of a primary icon. The primary/original nativity icon is quite old, so part of the nativity scene (especially the part about the cave and Joseph being visited by Satan in the bottom right) is taken from a description in the gospel of James [before it was determined to be apocryphal (and not written by James).]

2. The gospel of Luke actually doesn't claim that Jesus was born in a stable. Luke 2 simply says that Jesus was laid in a manger (feeding trough) because there was no room for him in the inn. As we associate mangers with stables, our picture of Jesus' birth is shaped by what we know of stables today.

3. An old friend of mine visited Israel recently and points out on her blog that animals were normally kept in caves. As Brenda puts it, "The “stable” we were introduced to was entirely different [from the nice wooden building we usually imagine]. The Israeli “stable” we sat in was a cold, dark cave carved into a rough mountainside, with “traces” of animals everywhere.
Isolated, out of town, and in the wilderness."

The blog is worth a read, especially for Brenda's reflection on the lack of room. Perhaps it had less to do with everything being full and more to do with who Mary and Joseph were. Unmarried but pregnant. Pregnant but a virgin. How could there be room?

The original Christmas is likely different than we often imagine it to be. Seeing the messiness in the original story, though, makes Jesus' birth more miraculous - not just because it means He became truly human like me but also because it reminds us of how God is with us in the messiness of our lives today.  
To read more about the messiness of Christmas, I recommend Ashley Van Dragt's article at The Well.

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