‘Were you born in a barn?” was the insult many of us endured as kids from friends and well-meaning adults when we did something lacking couth, class or “breeding.” The irony, of course, is that perhaps the most spiritually ascendent figure in the history of homo sapiens was, in fact, born in a barn-the event Christians, and others, are preparing to celebrate as if there were no tomorrow.

Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph (at least officially), was born in a stable, perhaps surrounded by animals, and his first crib was a food trough, making the presence of animals more hazardous than we might like to think.

If Jesus were God taking human form, as Christianity fervently proclaims, the fact that God would choose the humblest circumstances possible to make his appearance is, to say the least, radically different from what humanity was expecting.

But this man/god-at least in the stories in which his life unfolds-was, if nothing else, a master of metaphor. In his first act (nativity), he was already teaching lessons-that humility and simplicity are the keys to the kingdom (of heaven), and real earthly power comes from the grass roots (or in this case, hay).

Not that we’ve learned either of these lessons.

The interesting thing about the stable is that it was almost certainly a cave. When I visited Bethlehem last March, our guide, a Palestinian Christian, pointed out that caves, which can be found all over the surrounding countryside, were-and still are-used as stables for grazing animals. More than likely, our guide said, Mary and Joseph stayed with relatives because there was no such thing as an “inn,” but because of Jewish strictures on cleanliness, when the time came to give birth, Mary would have retired to a stable, which is to say, a cave.

We visited one, in fact, and they’re quite roomy, dry, and comfortable-not a humiliating place at all to enter the world. To my metaphorical mind, it would have been the perfect place. The cave has long been a symbol of our limited consciousness. Plato used the image to discuss man’s apprehension of truth. Our churches, to this day, are essentially stylized caves. We feel reverence there, which is no surprise really, given how we evolved. We also perceive the sky, day or night, as a great dome upon which the sun and stars are set. We “know” it’s not a dome, but we “perceive” it that way-as a rounded vault “overhead.”

The ceiling of the cave is a metaphor for the “ceiling” of our consciousness. The first question religion addresses is, “What lies beyond death?” The second question is, “What lies beyond the ceiling of our minds-the ceiling of the ‘cave’ we dwell in?” Most organized religions are obsessive about the first question. Too many ignore the second.

Jesus didn’t. He was born in a cave, and when he died, he was buried in a cave (either natural or hewn from rock). Neither cave could hold him. That’s the marvelous metaphor of his story.

If Jesus is “The Way” as devout Christians like to put it, his “way” cannot be discussed without including leaving the cave. Did he expect us to follow him out? That’s a likely reading of the story, but that is certainly not what has happened in the ensuing 2,000 years. Look around the world, and you have to conclude we’re all still huddled inside the cave-our individual caves and our collective cave.

How do we leave it? And what lies “outside?” Conservative Christians would call the cave “sin.” If you leave sin behind, they say, you leave the cave. I think it’s a little more complicated than that.

Or maybe it’s a whole lot simpler.

Maybe it’s as simple as being born in a barn.

Either way, those are much more fruitful questions to ask this time of year-and at this point in history-than “Where can I find another Tickle-Me-Elmo?”

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