When pondering the nativity, I’ve heard much made of the fact that the manger is a place of great humility for the King of Kings to be found, and rightly so. I’ve seldom given much thought, however, to what the manger was — a feeding place for animals.
There’s little evidence that there were animals present at Christ’s birth. “The cattle were lowing,” as the song goes, but it it’s difficult to imagine a Jewish setting with high values on both cleanliness and hospitality that would permit a woman to give birth while having to worry about being stepped on by a donkey. The manger was indeed lowly, but this manger was not in use when Mary and Joseph sought a place to lay their child.
There is no stable mentioned in any of the gospel accounts — just the manger. The shepherds are not told to go to a stable, but a manger. They would not find the baby lying at his mother’s breast — the most logical place to find a newborn — but lying in a manger.
It’s a feeding trough. Its significance is veiled somewhat in that a manger holds the livestock’s food. The animals’ sustenance is replaced by a baby who really, after all and before all is their true sustenance.
Some three decades later that same baby would tell his followers, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” His further explanation of this cryptic principle would alienate many who couldn’t grasp what they saw as madness: a man calling upon them to eat his flesh and drink his blood.
In the end, the repurposed manger served its original purpose after all. Christ is our sustenance. Man does not live on bread alone, but from God’s words — from the Word made flesh. Let us feed upon him this Christmas.