As we get closer to Christmas I cannot get my mind off these beautiful creche scenes that are everywhere, on the front lawns of Churches, on greeting cards, and in our home. We have a very simple but elegant one on a table in our home library. Each Sunday during Advent my little daughters place one additional figure in the scene, first the shepherd, then the magi, then the angels, and finally Jesus. I get a kick out of watching them do this. But was Jesus really born in a barn or stable or was he born in a cave as some people think?
Well, we really don't know. The origin of the typical creche scene goes back to the 13th century with St. Francis of Assisi. Tradition states that Francis was in Grecio (Italy) preparing to celebrate midnight mass and he realized the chapel there was too small. He walked outside and saw a very nice clearing near the base of a hill and set up a wooden lean-two and arranged to have farmers bring some animals there and that is where they had mass. Francis preached and everyone broke bread. This tradition was recalled by St. Bonaventure back in 1274. I guess this is one example where Francis lived out his maxim, "always preach the gospel, use words if you have to" a saying that I keep close to my heart throughout the year.
The tradition of the cave, which is still a tradition maintained in the Eastern Church goes back to the 2nd century with St. Justin Martyr who tells us that Jesus was born outside with the animals and placed in a manger in a cave on a hill outside of Bethlehem. When you go to Bethlehem you see that there are no many trees and nearly all the homes are built out of limestone or cinderblock and covered with stucco. It is highly likely that people back then lived in hut type dwellings that were hewn out of the sides of hills and mountains. There are plenty of caves throughout Palestine which has a lot of limestone due to the volcanic fault line that goes right through the middle of Israel.
The icon has Jesus in swaddling clothes in the center of a very dark cave. There is of course Mary below him in a prone position since she just have birth. Angels and shepherds are above in the upper right and left and to the bottom left is Joseph being tempted to leave Mary which is allegorically depicted by an old man. On the bottom right are mid-wives cleaning up the baby Jesus, again, showing us the reality of birth, blood and other bodily fluids.
So in the end we really don't know and quite honestly I enjoy both stories, since in both we have the image of a very humble God sending his son to be born among animals, poor shepherds, and a fallen and broken humanity.