Christmas thoughts from Bethlehem

I visited the grotto this afternoon, and found that I was just in time for Mass. Meanwhile the crowds continued to stream past the silver star marking the place of Christ's birth.

The grotto is in fact one cave among a network of half a dozen or so that meanders its way into the hillside on which ancient Bethlehem was built. Many of the houses in the immediate area around the church of the Nativity have such caves buried beneath them, and it seems that they mostly date to the time of Jesus and beyond.

And a cave is what the icon of the Nativity depicts, and it is a symbol deep in potency. The parallel iconographically is with the icon of the resurrection, when Christ harrows hell. In the Nativity Christ is place in a stone coffin within a dark cave, while the Virgin Mother is placed on a cushion at the mouth of the cave. In the harrowing of hell Christ stands astride the broken doors of hell above the dark cave littered with the debris of the smashed doors, and pulls Adam and Eve from their coffins at the edge of the cave. A further parallel would be the cave of the Holy Prophet Elijah which he finds at the end of his long, cross desert trek.

A cave in this context is thus something dark and foreboding, an empty place associated with death, decay and imprisonment. The cave is death, the captivity of the sinner, the place of the lost. It is thus also the place of the unknown, of fear, of all that underlies humanity living as a fallen people caught in cycles going back generations. It is the place where Christ needs to be born in order to break the principalities and powers which preside over the dark pit mentioned in Revelation, a lair of the legions of darkness.

Here Christ enters, here the Light is born aloft, here the Word takes flesh, here Truth and grace make themselves known forcing back the mask of shadows and laying things bare. Here is the place Christ must enter if things are to fundamentally change and good will out.

The cave is thus the battleground.

It is not a place a mere human person can enter, because it is death itself, potent, stifling, life draining. As an image it is pretty all embracing - a burial place, without air, perishingly cold, totally disorientating, a trap, a cage, a place of mental torture.

At the same time it is an interior image of the state of our souls in need of this Incarnated grace, of the fears that bind our deepest selves and deny us the flourishing of humanity as God's image and likeness, as the darkness that binds and makes love so fretful, fearful and paralysed.

And it is here that Christ must be born in order to break out and shatter the chains of fear that bind.

As a Child, seemingly so helpless, so in need of our protection and care, we find our defences subverted. He is small enough to crawl into the deepest recesses of our deepest self, and there to burn brightly as the Morning Star. His tenderness, his compassion, his selflessness takes him into the cave that is our state of existence, our heart, to liberate, to heal and to soothe.


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