On the Sign of the Manger
[Is.52:7-10; Heb.1:1-6; Jn.1:1-18]
Merry Christmas! What a happy day this is! Now, have you noticed our crib? St Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene on Christmas Eve back in 1223, three years before he died.
After visiting Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem, he recreated the scene in a cave in Greccio, Italy. He set up an empty manger and added an ox and a donkey. Then he invited everyone to come and see how poor and humble Jesus and his family were.
Mary and Joseph slept in that stable because there was nowhere else for them to stay. It had a manger, which is a food trough made of wood or stone that’s used to feed cows, horses or donkeys. (The word manger comes from the Latin ‘manducare’ which means ‘to eat’.)
Mary didn’t want to put baby Jesus on that cold hard floor, so she used the manger to cradle him. It was off the ground, the hay was soft and the sides kept Jesus safe.
Now, Luke’s Gospel mentions that manger three times, so it must be significant (Lk.2:7; 2:12; 2:16). Indeed, nothing happens to God by accident, so we can be sure that he deliberately chose it as a sign.
What then can we learn from the manger?
Well, as the Son of God, Jesus could have chosen to live anywhere at all. But instead of glamour and comfort he chose absolute poverty and simplicity, making himself available to everyone, even the lowliest of shepherds (Phil.2:6-8). So through the manger Jesus is showing us that he’s always open and available to us, and especially to the poor.
That stable was also dirty and messy, and by his presence there Jesus is signalling that he’s happy to be with us wherever we are, even in the middle of our own dirty and messy lives. And his manger tells us that there’s light to be found even in the darkest of places, because Jesus is the Light of the World (Jn.8:12).
Wealth, status and prestige mean absolutely nothing to Jesus, and by choosing to live so humbly he’s saying something about the way we live our own lives. He’s showing us that love, mercy, humility and forgiveness are far more important.
And did you know that Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’? And combined with the symbol of the manger, Jesus is clearly offering himself to us as spiritual food. He’s the Bread of Life, the cure for our spiritual hunger (Jn.6:35), and the manger reminds us of the Feeding of the 5,000 where Jesus nourished his eager followers (Mt.14:13-21).
Jesus is offering himself to us as spiritual food.
But it also points to the Last Supper where Jesus instituted the Holy Eucharist. That’s where he said, ‘Take and eat it, for this is my body’ (Mt.26:26) and ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day’ (Jn.6:53-57).
Jesus is the food for eternal life, and we can see that the manger mirrors our altar, the table of God, where we all come to share in the Bread of Life, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, in the Holy Eucharist.
Something else that the manger points to is Jesus’ death and resurrection. Luke tells us that after Jesus was born, Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes and placed him in the manger (Lk.2:7). These swaddling clothes were long strips of fabric, similar to the linen bandages that were wrapped around his body when he was placed in his tomb (Jn.19:40).
So, when you think about Christmas, you must also remember his death and resurrection at Easter. These events are linked.
And finally, Jesus slept in that manger because he was homeless. Even as an adult, Jesus says, ‘Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Lk.9:57-58). On Christmas Day – his birthday – Jesus is still homeless.
Will you take Jesus home with you today?
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
The little lord Jesus asleep on the hay.
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little lord Jesus no crying he makes.
I love thee, lord Jesus! Look down from the sky,
And stay by my side until morning is nigh.
Be near me, lord Jesus; I ask thee to stay
Close by me for ever and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.