Think back over the past year. How many times did you hear the word “manger” used in a sentence? How many times before December, not including Christmas carols?

For most of us, especially if we’ve never lived on a farm, “manger” has exclusively Christmas connotations. It conjures an image of a small wooden box, a crib in all but name, rough yet cozy, lined with clean straw and warm baby blankets. Snuggled within is the baby Jesus, bathed in a golden glow, sharing an enigmatic smile with his mother and adoptive father. The mood extends to everyone around – even the barnyard animals are smiling.

But a manger is a feeding trough, plain and simple. Even on a modern farm, it wouldn’t be an ideal choice as a bed for a newborn baby. In Roman Judea 2,000 years ago, it would’ve been much less so. The Scriptures aren’t explicit, but the manger suggests a stable, perhaps at the inn from which Joseph and Mary were turned away, or more likely, according to ancient tradition, in a cave or grotto near the village of Bethlehem.

However we picture the scene, we often see it, much like the manger, through a soft-focus Christmas lens. We imagine something rustic yet comfortable, almost inviting, and this colours our entire view of the Nativity. No doubt we recognize that Mary and Joseph were poor, but it’s a romanticized poverty, clean and mostly painless.

The unvarnished realism of the Nativity

The reality would have been starkly different. Even by the standards of the time, inns were not always pleasant or comfortable – or safe – places to stay. They weren’t the 1st-century equivalent of a quaint country bed and breakfast. They were more like the inner-city hostels and flop houses of their day. People stayed there either because they couldn’t afford anything else, or because they had nowhere else to turn. The inn was a last resort, so finding no room at the inn would have been doubly desperate, especially for a young couple about to have their first child.

This bleak scenario may not be the most appealing of Christmas images. But hopefully it gives us a more realistic grasp of the extent to which our Saviour humbled himself, and what he was willing to endure, for our sakes.

In his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, Kent Hughes paints a vivid picture:

If we imagine that Jesus was born in a freshly swept, county fair stable, we miss the whole point. It was wretched – scandalous! There was sweat and pain and blood and cries as Mary reached up to the heavens for help. The earth was cold and hard. The smell of birth mixed with the stench of manure and acrid straw made a contemptible bouquet. Trembling carpenter’s hands, clumsy with fear, grasped God’s Son slippery with blood – the baby’s limbs waving helplessly as if falling through space – his face grimacing as he gasped in the cold and his cry pierced the night.

By contrast, the beloved Christmas carol “Away in a Manger” suggests that “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” As a whole, the song poignantly evokes the transcendent moment of the Nativity, but at this point, it fails to convey the genuine humanity of Jesus.

Once again, Hughes is helpful in giving us a more realistic portrait:

As a real baby in the cradle he watched his tiny clenched fist in uncomprehending fascination, just like any other baby. He did not feign babyhood. He did not say to himself, “You all think I am a pre-articulate baby discovering I have a hand. Actually, I am God admiring my brilliant invention. I am your Creator, and I understand every word you are saying.” Not at all. He was not pretending. This was not a post-natal spoof. He was a baby!

The unfathomable mystery of the Incarnation

It’s difficult for us to grasp how Jesus can be fully God and fully human at the same time, so we tend to focus on one aspect at the expense of the other. But on the one extreme, to think of the infant Jesus as nothing more than a baby is to deny his divinity. And on the other, to think of him as a fully self-aware divine person in a baby suit who never uttered a peep is to deny his genuine humanity.

In the Nativity, the infinite Creator stepped down into his finite creation and became part of it, subjecting himself to all its limitations, pains and inconveniences. If a person were to become an amoeba, it would be an infinitely smaller step than the one taken by the Son of God in becoming human, because at the root of it, the amoeba and the person are both finite creatures. But the all-knowing, all-powerful, everywhere-present, Sovereign Lord of the universe became a baby who cried and burbled, who needed to be fed and changed, who had to learn to walk, talk, think, read, write and work with his hands. And yet he did all of that without ever sinning, and always remaining God.

The mystery of the Incarnation is truly unfathomable. The 19th-century preacher Charles Spurgeon made a sublime attempt to express it with these words:

Infinite, and an infant,
Eternal, and yet born of a woman,
Almighty, and yet hanging on a woman’s breast,
Supporting the universe, and yet needing to be carried in a mother’s arms,
King of angels, and yet the reputed son of Joseph,
Heir of all things, and yet the carpenter’s despised son.

Theologian J.I. Packer sums up the importance of the Nativity to the entire Gospel story:

The crucial significance of the cradle at Bethlehem lies in its place in the sequence of steps down that led the Son of God to the cross of Calvary, and we do not understand it till we see it in this context.

This Christmas, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus in art and song, let’s consider how far down God was willing to step and humble himself in order to save his people from their sins: becoming a baby born in a feeding trough – for us.

Sources and further reading

R. Kent Hughes, Luke: That You May Know the Truth, (Preaching the Word), Crossway, 2014.

J.I. Packer, Knowing God, InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Charles H. Spurgeon, “His Name – Wonderful!The Spurgeon Center, accessed November 18, 2019.

© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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