The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Cave as sanctuary

In these Advent weeks of waiting we reflect on the birth of the Christ Child. But do we wonder where? Where was Jesus really born? Most of us were taught that Jesus was born in a stable, wooden beams crossing the ceiling, with oxen and sheep in the next stall. But the surroundings at Christ's birth were likely much different from this familiar image.

According to Coptic Christians in Egypt (descendants of some of the earliest Christians), Jesus actually was born in a cave. Coptic Christianity still maintains oral accounts of this. It's likely that a dark and musty cave was Jesus' first home.

Recently I traveled to Egypt through the Lutheran Seminary at Philadelphia and met many Coptic Christians. We toured churches, observed the natural and cavernous environment of the land, and visited several sites where the Holy Family is said to have stayed during their exile in Egypt. In all these places I felt like I was standing on holy ground, and I was. But I also noticed that I was surrounded by caves.

The cave played an important role in Christ's early life and still holds significance in Egyptian Coptic piety today. A group of Coptic Christians called the Zabaleen, who have taken the meaning of "cave as sanctuary" to heart, are trash collectors. The Zabaleen have built their churches into the side of the Mokkatam Mountain in Cairo, Egypt's capital. Their church is called Cave Church. They worship as their ancestors did—in caves shielded from the sun's light and protected from the outside heat. Amid the sweltering desert, the cave churches literally provide comfort and sanctuary.

Their use of cave as church connects to the Holy Family's use of cave as dwelling. The cave offered Mary, Joseph and Jesus safety, security and a sense of hope amid exile. Like the Zabaleen, they found sanctuary in the sides of mountains. They found sanctuary in darkened spaces, lit only by candles. They found sanctuary in caves.

Within our faith we encounter both the glaring light of the outside and the silent darkness of the inner cave. We find ourselves continuously moving from the light to the dark and back again, from the dry to the verdant, and from the busy to the serene. There is a paradox in the reality of the cave—just as there is paradox in the glory of Christ's birth in Bethlehem and fear in his fleeing to Egypt, in his transfiguration on the mountain and his suffering on the cross, and in his body laid in a cavernous tomb and his glorious resurrection.

We can learn from our Coptic brothers and sisters and from the Zabaleen among us. This Christmas Eve as we sit in darkened candlelit sanctuaries singing hymns of silent nights, we can remember the cave that cradled the Christ Child and give thanks for the Christ-cave that cradles our faith today.


This week's front page features:cover3

Pregnant possibilities: (right) Faith community could do more for the mother-to-be.

'We have this treasure': Global music lifts Luther's 21st-century church. 

Cutting back this Christmas?: Easing back from holiday consumerism is freeing.

Piglet and Granny. 

Also: Preparing the soil.

Also: Workshop asks, 'What is God up to?'

Also: Age 80, and up to his neck.

Read these articles at our front page ...


Discuss what faith communities can do for mothers-to-be monet peterson

Dec. 8-15: Join Monte Smith Peterson (right) to discuss how faith communities can help expecting mothers. Consider reading "Pregnant possibilites" before joining in. 

Join the discussion ...




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February issue


Embracing diversity