The Meaning of the Manger -– Going Deeper than N.T. Wright
With Newsweek and Time running articles on the Virgin Birth of Jesus, it’s easy for apologetically inclined Christians to play defense this Christmas season. We should play some defense, and I do. But we should also reflect on the incarnation and birth of Jesus Christ. When God becomes a man to suffer and die so He can save His people, there is a lot going on. In this post, I want to explore the meaning of the manger in Luke’s Christmas narrative – and then reflect on its meaning with some helpful comments from N.T. Wright.
The manger in which Jesus was laid has colored our imagery of Christmas. A manger, "[i]s a feeding-trough, crib, or open box in a stable designed to hold fodder for livestock.” Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, page 674. Usually, we associate the manger with the animals in the story of Christmas or with Jesus’ perceived poverty. I have several nativity sets and most of them include barn animals and such. While I have no problem with such displays, and in fact love them, there is deeper meaning in the manger. What prompted this post was N.T. Wright’s Luke for Everyone, in which he discusses the significance of the manger in the Christmas story. And it had nothing to do with painting a cute picture with animals softly acknowledging the arrival of the Messiah. As for Jesus’ poverty, I’m not sure that his family was poor. Joseph had a skill that would have placed his family at the top of the lower class. Their failure to find a home in Bethlehem immediately upon arrival is due more to overcrowding than lack of resources. But the manger is featured so thoroughly in Luke’s account that he obviously attaches great significance to it. N.T. Wright comments:
[I]t was the feeding-trough, appropriately enough, which was the sign to the shepherds. It told them which baby they were looking for. And it showed them that the angel knew what he was talking about. To be sure, it’s another wonderful human touch in the story, to think of the young mother finding an animal’s feeding-trough ready to hand as a cot for her newborn one. No doubt there are many sermons waiting to be preached here about God coming down into the mess and muddle of real life. But the reason Luke has mentioned it is because it’s important in giving the shepherds their news and their instructions.
Why is this significant? Because it was the shepherds who were told who this child was. This child is the savior, the Messiah, the Lord. The manger isn’t important in itself. It’s a signpost, a pointing finger, to the identity and task of the baby boy who’s lying in it. The shepherds, summoned in from the fields (like David, the shepherd boy, brought in from the fields to be anointed as king), are made privy to the news, so that Mary and Joseph, hearing it from this unexpected source, will have extra confirmation of what up until now has been their own secret.
Wright, op. cit., page 22.
Wright’s comments, though not revolutionary, are insightful. A chronological review might help fit the pieces together. Mary lays Jesus in the manger (v. 7). Angels appear to the Shepherds and tell them that a baby lying in the manger is a “sign” of the Savior. (v. 12: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."). The shepherds hurried to Bethlehem and found their Savior just as the angel said – receiving confirmation by the baby being in the manger. (v. 16). Because of this confirmation, they began telling others that the Savior had come (v. 17). But Wright’s point that I had not reflected on before, was how this must have been powerful confirmation to Mary and Joseph. (v. 19: “But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.”). I find it touching that God – on this momentous day -- was concerned with providing confirmation that Mary would be able to “treasure.”
Although I appreciate Wright’s comments about the manger, I think he fails to mention an even deeper meaning: Why did God choose to use the manger as a “sign” of the Savior? Signs are often chosen for a reason, such as the “blood” of Jesus wiping away our sins. Obviously a reference to the blood of animal sacrifices in earlier Judaism, which themselves likely used blood because of its association with life and vitality (especially in ancient times). So, why the manger? The answer, I believe, is found later in Luke (and in Mark, Matthew, and 1 Corinthians) at the Last Supper:
And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me." And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.”
From the start of his life, Jesus was born to die on our behalf. Jesus came to offer his own body, his own blood, to accomplish his work as Savior. He equates his body and blood with a sacrifice for us to consume, and by consuming that sacrifice we find salvation and reunion with God. Thus, it is fitting that the Savior, at the start of his life, would be placed in a feeding-trough as a sign not only of who he is, but of how he will accomplish His sacred task. To me, that is the meaning of the manger.