Growing up, the day after Thanksgiving was the day our Christmas decorations were brought down from the attic. My grandmother is skilled in ceramics, and she long ago gave us a Nativity scene that she lovingly made herself. I fondly remember taking these pieces out of storage and arranging them on our coffee table. Most Nativity scenes today look much the same, with the same animals and people involved.
And yet, it never really occurred to me that Jesus could have been born anywhere other than a barn, as the Nativity scene is often portrayed today. Our Lord was certainly placed into a manger as the Gospels record, but the actual location of this manger was a cave.
As most converts or newbies to the Orthodox faith might understand, I was a little confused when I first saw the icon of Nativity. The first thing that stood out is that the Christ child and the Ever-Virgin Mary are shown in a cave on the side of a rocky hill, rather than in a wooden barn.
While odd to anyone who did not grow up in the Orthodox Church, the tradition of Christ being born in a cave is rather ancient.
The Gospels do not give specific details as to the whereabouts of the manger—other than being in or near the village of Bethlehem—but early Christian philosopher St. Justin Martyr (ca. A.D. 150) tells us in Dialogue with Trypho (78):
Along with Mary he is ordered to proceed into Egypt, and remain there with the Child until another revelation warn them to return into Judaea. But when the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him. I have repeated to you what Isaiah foretold about the sign which foreshadowed the cave; but for the sake of those who have come with us today, I shall again remind you of the passage.
The portion of Isaiah he quotes is ch. 33, vv. 15–16 (as in the Septuagint):
One walking in righteousness, speaking a straight way, hating lawlessness and unrighteousness and shaking off his hands from gifts, making his ears dull, lest he hear a judgment of blood, shutting his eyes, lest he see unrighteousness—this one will live in the high cave of a strong rock.
Justin draws a connection between Isaiah’s prophecy and the birth of Jesus Christ in a cave—just as portrayed in our icons of his birth.
Incidentally, while it might be strange to us, keeping animals in caves was—and is still to this day—common in Palestine:
The Scriptures, Josephus, and all travelers speak of the numerous caves that are found throughout Palestine. They were used for dwellings, for fortresses and places of refuge, for cisterns, for prisons, and for sepulchers. Travelers used them as inns, robbers as dens, herdsmen as stalls, husbandmen as granaries. Many of these caves were very large. One is mentioned (Jdg. 20:47) being large enough for six hundred men. —Samuel J. Andrews, The Life of Our Lord upon the Earth
The oldest-functioning Church building in the world today—the Church of the Nativity—is at the site of this cave in Bethlehem. Under the joint oversight of both the Orthodox church of Jerusalem and the Roman Catholic church, this structure was constructed by the Emperor St. Constantine the Great in 327, two years after the First Ecumenical Council. The cave below the surface is where the very spot of Christ’s birth is revered by faithful tourists, with the church structures on the ground above.
Besides Isaiah and the writings of St. Justin, there are two other sources of antiquity that speak of Christ’s birth in a cave.
Pseudo-Matthew, or the Infancy Gospel of Matthew (ca. 6–7th century) records (ch. 13):
He commanded the blessed Mary to come down off the animal, and go into a recess under a cavern, in which there never was light, but always darkness, because the light of day could not reach it.
And the venerable Protoevangelium of James (ca. mid-2nd century) records:
And the Magi went out. And, behold, the star which they had seen in the east went before them until they came to the cave, and it stood over the top of the cave. And the Magi saw the infant with His mother Mary; and they brought forth from their bag gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
And of course, in the hymnography of the Church:
Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One,
And the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One!
Angels with shepherds glorify Him!
The wise men journey with a star!
Since for our sake the Eternal God was born as a Little Child! —Kontakion of the Nativity, Tone 3
May we all receive with joy the blessed incarnation of our Lord, who was born in a cave for our salvation.