As I mentioned in a post yesterday, Orthodox icons show the birth of Christ taking place in a cave. I was surprised to come upon a fascinating passage G. K. Chesterton wrote about 100 years ago. Here it is in an abridged version published on the Plough website, one of my favorite places on the Internet for outstanding Christian writing. I added or edited a couple words just to make Chesterton’s ideas clearer. It rewards careful reading. Chesterton was a wonderful writer of fiction and non-fiction. Perhaps he is best known for his Father Brown mysteries.
The old human trinity was of father and mother and child and is called the human family. The new human trinity is of child and mother and father and has the name of the Holy Family. It is in no way altered except in being entirely reversed; just as the world which is transformed was not in the least different, except in being turned upside down.
This sketch of the human story began in a cave; the cave which popular science associates with the caveman and in which practical discovery has really found archaic drawings of animals. The second half of human history, which was like a new creation of the world, also begins in a cave. There is even a shadow of such a fancy in the fact that animals were again present; for it was a cave used as a stable by the mountaineers of the uplands about Bethlehem; who still drive their cattle into such holes and caverns at night. It was here that a homeless couple had crept underground with the cattle when the doors of the crowded caravanserai had been shut in their faces; and it was here beneath the very feet of the passers-by, in a cellar under the very floor of the world, that Jesus Christ was born. But in that second creation there was indeed something symbolical in the roots of the primeval rock or the horns of the prehistoric herd. God also was a caveman, and had also traced strange shapes of creatures, curiously colored, upon the wall of the world; but the pictures that he made had come to life.
A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end, has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle.
It might be suggested that nothing had happened in that fold or crack in the great grey hills except that the whole universe had been turned inside out. I mean that all the eyes of wonder and worship which had been turned outwards to the largest thing were now turned inward to the smallest.
Whether as a myth or a mystery, Christ was obviously conceived as born in a hole in the rocks primarily because it marked the position of one outcast and homeless. Nevertheless it is true, as I have said, that the cave has not been so commonly or so clearly used as a symbol as the other realities that surrounded the first Christmas.
And the reason for this also refers to the very nature of that new world. It was in a sense the difficulty of a new dimension. Christ was not only born on the level of the world, but even lower than the world. The first act of the divine drama was enacted, not only on no stage set up above the sight-seer, but on a dark and curtained stage sunken out of sight; and that is an idea very difficult to express in most modes of artistic expression.
But in the riddle of Bethlehem it was heaven that was under the earth. There is in that alone the touch of a revolution, as of the world turned upside down.
Abridged excerpt from The Everlasting Man (Hodder & Stoughton, 1925), 201–207.