A sign exists to bring another reality into our awareness - whether that be a street sign telling us to stop for traffic, a gesture signifying gratitude or an apology, or a sacrament which brings God's grace into our very lives. We misread the sign when we merely look at it rather than look with it - to the reality for which it stands.
Christmas season is recently past. Despite all of its wonderfully orchestrated pageantry, we often misread the symbolism of Christmas. In particular, the manger is often misread.
We build these elaborate creches and manger scenes and look at them in adoring sentimentality. If we understood the manger - the reality to which it points - we could not look at it this way. So to help us look with it rather than at it, let's consider afresh Luke chapter two and that to which the manger actually points.
The manger is mentioned three times in Luke’s birth story. This repetition suggests its a significant, a very deliberate pointer. But what is it pointing to? What is it a sign of?
First, Luke tells us it is a sign for the shepherds. The second occurrence of its mentioning, the Angel of the Lord says this: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”(2:12)
Jesus was not the only baby in Bethlehem. We learn the shocking reality of this fact when we celebrate Holy Innocents, which we do annually at Truro. Herod is so fearful of the baby king, he has all the boys two years old and younger in the region slaughtered. So the Shepherds need a sign to help them identify the right baby. And they are told that he is lying in a manger.
This is not difficult to figure out. The story tells us the manger is a sign of the one baby the Shepherds should be looking for. But is that it? Does it point to anything else besides the baby Jesus’ presence in Bethlehem?
A manger is a makeshift crib. How many young parents used the top drawer of the dresser, half way pulled out, to be the crib they could not afford? This make-shift crib, this manger, points us to recognize the poverty of his parents and the poverty of his circumstance. The manger tells us that Jesus was a temporarily homeless baby. Jesus was a royal baby but he was not born in Herod’s nor Caesar’s palace. Jesus was a priestly baby but was not born in the Levitical precincts of Jerusalem. Jesus was a Galilean baby but was not born in Nazareth. The manger points to the displacement of Jesus, to his perennial out of place-ness. When people are out of place they are often ignored or unrecognized.
Jesus is born out place so that he could find us in our dislocation and relocate us in God.
In the 20th century the doctrine of the virgin birth came under severe skeptical scrutiny. Some theologians called it a monstrosity of a doctrine, something that was clearly out of place in the way they had put the world together. But the monstrosity is not how God became human but why He would? Why would God become human…and a baby at that? Indeed, a homeless baby? A hunted baby? The manger points us in the direction of looking at what kind of person God would become when he decided to join himself to our condition. And what kind of person God uses to make himself known in the world.
Luther observed there are three miracles at the Nativity: “That God became a man, that a virgin conceived, and that Mary believed. And the greatest of these is which?” The last. The first two were dependent on the last miracle – Mary’s faith. God is sovereign, but he has chosen to work generally through the faith and faithfulness of his people. Never underestimate the faith of the humble, especially the faith of a humble mother.
Women do not have the power to generate life alone, immaculate conceptions or otherwise. But they do have the power to either sustain or end the life God has given them. Every women who carries a baby full term, especially when circumstances make a pregnancy difficult, she is close to the heart of the Father. Carol Houselander writes:
“When a woman is carrying a child she develops a certain instinct of self-defense. It is not selfishness; it is not egoism. It is an absorption into the life within, a folding of self like a little tent around the child’s fragility, a God-like instinct to cherish, and some day to bring forth, the life within her."
It is this kind of faith that God honors, especially in the faith of all our mothers.
So the manger points us to baby Jesus in Bethlehem. It points us to the baby Jesus in poverty, his decision to reside with the humble and needy who look to him to meet us in our point of need and vulnerability. But it points us to something else as well.
Now allow me to go against all I have said, and look at the manger itself. Go ahead, look at the pointer? What is it?
A Manger is feeding trough.
Even Jesus’ crib foreshadows his destiny. Jesus came to feed us.
He took loaves and fishes to feed the multitudes. He claimed to be the bread of life and said his teaching would satisfy our hunger if we would feast on his words.
But there is more. He told his disciples “my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed” take and eat and drink of me that you might have eternal life.
The manger points us to this truth. Jesus begins his life as he will continue it: in a feeding trough. Yes, Jesus was born to die, to give of himself and to keep on giving.