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 which include the manger, along with barn animals. Although I am a nativity set enthusiast, there is a much deeper meaning in the manger.
The manger is mentioned three times in Luke 2. Mary lays Jesus in the manger, the angels tell the shepherds that they will find the Savior by seeking the baby lying in a manger, and then the shepherds in fact find Jesus lying in a manger. Obviously, the repetitive references to the manger are indicative of its significance in Luke’s narrative. As Bible scholar 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, Luke for Everyone, page 22.
Wright’s comments are insightful. The shepherds hurried to Bethlehem and found their Savior just as the angel said – confirmed by the discovery of the baby in the manger. Because of this confirmation, they began telling others that the Savior had come. But Wright’s point that I had not reflected on before, was how this must have been powerful confirmation to Mary and Joseph. As verse 19 states, “Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.” It is revealing that God – on this momentous day – was concerned with providing confirmation that Mary would be able to “treasure.”
But it seems to me that there is yet more significance to the manger than its confirming role. Why did God choose to use the manger as a “sign” of the Savior? Signs are often chosen for a reason. For example, the “blood” of Jesus wiping away our sins alludes to the blood of animal sacrifices in earlier Judaism. So, the question remains, why the manger? The answer, I believe, is found later in Luke (as well as 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 day of His birth, Jesus was meant to die on our behalf. He came to offer his own body, his own blood, to accomplish his work as Savior. Jesus offered his body and blood as a sacrifice for us to consume and by consuming that sacrifice we find salvation. As John wrote, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.” 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 fulfill His purpose and effect our salvation.
To me, that is the meaning of the manger.