The Christmas cave

Sermon (entitled “Epilogue”) preached at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital Carol Service, Christ Church, Clifton, Bristol, 13 December 1989

I don’t know if you are anything like me, but when the alarm clock goes in the morning I sometimes think, “oh no! Time to get up. I wish I could stay in bed for another hour!” But of course I can’t. There’s no escape. I can’t miss the 28 bus into work. I must get behind my desk by 8.30. Diving under the duvet is disastrous. Mind you, the temptation is very strong, and it’s not just limited to staying in bed. If you are unsure or afraid of things, it is very tempting to retreat from them; ducking for shelter is part of the survival instinct. That’s why the Americans are spending $93m on sending men crawling through tunnels to try to find a cave big enough to act as a vast fall-out shelter for the population.

That’s turning the clock back to the Stone Age when caves were selected as places of safety. But it is not just for escape, but for discovery. The biggest discovery I ever made in a cave was that if you didn’t take enough water your calcium carbide lamp wouldn’t work, and you’d be left in the dark! The discovery of paintings in the Lascaux caves, or of Ice Age flint tools lead us to consider caves as the womb of science, art and religion.

Well, what’s all this talk of caves got to do with the approaching Christmas season? It seems that the land around Bethlehem was very rocky, and there were plenty of caves there which were, and still are, used for sheltering animals. It is quite likely then that the stable at Bethlehem was one of these caves, there being no need to build a wooden one. Oddly enough, this seems quite hard to accept. Wooden stables are on all the Christmas cards, so that such a familiar image is hard to demolish.

Yet the cave in which the Son of God came to dwell was less than a place to hide and more a place to make discoveries. That’s what the shepherds did. They discovered the Saviour; theirs and ours. So Christmas starts in the cave with the first Christmas present: Jesus himself.

Jesus did not stay in the cave for very long. The story of the visit of the Wise Men says that they “entered the house”, which implies that Mary and Joseph very quickly found better accommodation. That’s another “Ouch!” factor. We’ve been putting the Three Kings in the crib scene for centuries, despite what the Bible says.

We have to leave the Christmas cave, if like Christ we are to grow up and move into the future. The Christmassy atmosphere is warm and comfortable like the early morning duvet. We call it the season of good cheer. It’s much easier to be nice to people if you’re feeling good yourself. But Love is more than for a season, so Jesus left the cave, grew up, and faced the world with all its problems and hostility. People misunderstood him, were suspicious and killed him. He was buried in another cave, borrowed just like the first.

He didn’t stay long in that one, either. He rose from death and went out into new life. Caves make very good beginnings but very bad ends. It’s easy to retreat into shelter – a set of opinions which are familiar and well-rehearsed, a situation you know and in which you feel safe, or even the ‘nice’ atmosphere of Christmas – but if you stay in them you run the risk of being buried alive.

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