Plato’s Cave: A Christmas Story


Plato’s Cave: A Christmas Story
Brian Zahnd

Four hundred years before the birth of Jesus, history’s greatest philosopher gave the world an enduring allegory. I’m talking about Plato and his famous allegory of the cave. Plato said we are like prisoners chained in a deep cave lit only by dim torches, so that we exist in darkness watching shadows on the wall. We are imprisoned in deep untruth. What we need is someone to free us from our chains, to lead us out of the dark and into the day. In simplified form that’s the allegory Plato gave to explain the human predicament four hundred years before Caesar Augustus decided to take a census and thereby set in motion events that we remember every December.

You know the story. Joseph and Mary are compelled by imperial degree to travel from Nazareth to their ancestral home in Bethlehem — a little hilltop village five miles south of Jerusalem. A town that would have been utterly inconsequential if it had not been for a bit of historical trivia: a thousand years earlier Bethlehem was the birthplace of David, Israel’s greatest king. To further endow tiny Bethlehem with significance, the prophet Micah in his poems of hope dreamed of the day when an even greater king would be born in Bethlehem — a king whose reign of peace would cover the earth and lead to the abolishment of war. (See Micah 4:1-5; 5:2-5)

A thousand years after David. Seven centuries after Micah.

Mary and Joseph. Bethlehem. No room in the inn. Ever resourceful Joseph finds shelter among the livestock. It’s far from ideal. Mary goes into labor. (It must have seemed like the worst timing. But it wasn’t.) Jesus is born. Wrapped in swaddling clothes. Laid in a manger. A feeding trough. Which is how we know Jesus was born among the livestock.

But here is where our traditional nativity scenes may mislead us. Livestock weren’t sheltered in barns, but in caves. Caves! That’s right, Jesus was born in a…cave!

Hold on to that thought.

Meanwhile, east of town among the rugged hills are those now famous shepherds. An angel from heaven appears. The shepherds are, understandably, frightened. The angel says what angels always say — “Fear not.” This is what heaven has to say to earth…to humanity…to you: Don’t be afraid.

The angel announces good news of great joy. The Savior-King has been born in Bethlehem. Then more angels!

Glory to God in the highest!
And on earth peace, goodwill among men!

Before departing the angel gives the shepherds a sign to help them find the newborn king: A baby wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. The manger bit, that’s the real clue. The shepherds won’t be looking for this baby in houses or inns, but in caves!

The good news of great joy is that the world’s true king has been born in Plato’s cave — in our cave! The dark place where we have been imprisoned since the dawn of human consciousness and civilization. The prison where we watch shadows on the wall — shadows that animate our fears. We need to get out of the cave. But to be saved from the cave it wasn’t enough for God to call to us from above — someone had to join us in the darkness. Someone who knew the way out. Immanuel. God with us. In the cave.

The cave.
The prison where Satan casts shadows on the wall. Lies. Lies about God. False innuendos that God is angry, hard to please, malevolently disposed toward us. The fear generated by these shadows led to the birth of wrong religion.

Nurtured in fear, we become afraid of one another, leading to the dog-eat-dog world of wrong politics — the politics of fear where the mantra is, “Get them before they get us.” The cave of fear is the matrix of war.

Afraid of God and afraid of one another we live our lives as prisoners haunted by shadows in the dreadful cave — the cave we have mistaken for reality. Then the Christmas angel comes to us…

Fear not! Good news! Great joy! A Savior is born! In a cave! Repeat the sounding joy!

The Savior-King Immanuel comes to the cave, but he will not reign in the cave. Jesus has no intention of reigning over the old politics of fear. Pharaoh, Alexander, Caesar and all the “great” rulers reigned in the cave cooperating with the accuser who casts the shadows of fear upon the wall. Jesus will not do this. Jesus is born in the cave to lead us out of the cave — out of our chains, away from the shadows and into the light of God’s love.

Now we have a choice. Jesus will not force us to leave the cave. The kingdom of Christ is without coercion. Either we believe Jesus and follow him out of the shadows of fear into the light of love — or we sit in chains and watch satanic shadows on the wall. (Quite likely in the form of 24-7 cable-news shadows shown on an HD flat screen TV.)

Glory to God in the highest!
And on earth peace, goodwill among men!

Peace. There is no way to peace, peace is the way. Jesus is peace, Jesus is the way.

Goodwill. Instead of being predatory, we can choose to be benevolent. The time has come for the lion to dwell peaceably with the lamb.

We can stop viewing God’s other children through the lens of fear and competition.
We can now view one another through the lens of love and goodwill. God wills it.

The world is under a new administration. No longer run by lions and bears and leopards and monsters, the world is now led by a Lamb.

Of course you can choose to stay down in the cave with your fear and illusions (and your favorite pundits to confirm it all). Forever if you want. But you don’t have to. The King born in Bethlehem’s cave will lead you out of the shadowlands into the warm sunshine of God’s eternal love.

Fear not. Fret not. Fight not.
We can enter the sunshine of God’s love.
This is the Christmas message.

So you can let go of all that culture war business. (The culture wars are mostly a debate about the nature of American civil religion, which has nothing to do with authentic Christianity.) Christmas is not about something new to fight over — Christmas is about peace on earth, goodwill among men. We can follow the Savior-King out of the cave of fear. Let’s do so.

Merry Christmas!


(Click HERE for the sermon version of this.)

The grotto in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Built over a cave, it is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. The fourteen pointed silver star represents the star that guided the magi and the fourteen generations from Abraham to David, from David to the Exile, from the Exile to Christ. (Matthew 1:17)

The warm spot where I wrote this post on a cold Christmas Eve’s Eve.