Away in Luke’s Manger
How many times have I read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke? Many, many times, but this year as I read it again I noticed something I had never noticed before.
Before I say what I noticed, one word of explanation. Luke did not write his gospel at a table in Dizzy Bean Coffee Shop on his lap-top computer, so he had no way to make text bold, italicized or even underlined. In fact, he did not even have an exclamation mark, as no one did in his day.
So if a person writing in the first century wanted to emphasize an idea and make sure the reader did not miss it, he might repeat it several times.
Now, if a writer tells us something more than once, and it seems trivial – there is good reason to sit up, pay close attention, and try to see the point he is making.
Here is what I noticed this year: three times we read the seemingly trivial information that the baby Jesus would be lying in a manger.
First, Luke himself tells us:
2:7 And she agave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
The second time we hear the angels tell the shepherds:
2:12 “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
The third time, just in case we were not paying attention, Luke himself tells us what the shepherds saw:
2:16 So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger.
Though I previously never noticed that Luke told us this little fact three times, of course I have always known that trivial detail of the story – everybody does.
Every crèche I have ever seen features a manger in the center with the baby Jesus lying in it, around which everyone gathers and everything happens.
The manger even became the subject of the Christmas lullaby, “Away in a manger, no crib for his bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.”
The observation that Jesus had to lay in a manger because he had no crib is unintentionally funny: the word crib used to mean manger – we still say “corn-crib” today.
I think it helps to think of a corn crib to understand what Luke was trying to tell us: I would never set a baby in a corn crib – or a feed trough or a dog dish or anything else that animals use as a dinner plate.
The only thing fit to be put into a manger is animal food. Why would Luke place the baby in there with the animal food three times?
The odd thing is that Luke does not tell us about any animals at the crèche scene.
The shepherds who find the baby Jesus there were with their sheep when the angels came to them, but Luke does not tell us if they brought them or left them.
Even though every crèche has a donkey, a cow, some sheep, and maybe even the wise men’s camels, Luke doe not mention a single four-footed beast at all.
If the baby Jesus is there in the place of the animal food, who are the animals that need supper?
At crucial moments throughout his gospel, Luke dips into the words and images of the prophet Isaiah, to help us understand Jesus’ purpose, and this is one of those crucial moments.
In the opening paragraph of Isaiah’s prophecy, Isaiah introduces the central problem he is sent to prophesy about. Here is how Isaiah pictures it:
Isaiah. 1:3 The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib/manger;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.
Isaiah says that Israel, God’s people, forgot their manger. They forgot where to go to get fed.
The ox knows its owner – and the donkey can find the manger even in the dark of night – but do the sheep know where to go to get fed?
Will they recognize when their shepherd comes to feed them?
Jesus has come, to feed his sheep; you will find the baby, lying in a manger – he has come to fill our hunger.
He has come to bring nourishment to our aching-gut longing for God.
This is what Christmas is: God’s Bread for the World.
“Everybody has a hungry heart” – so the song goes – and it’s true. We are hungry people; hungry:
- for approval,
- for respect,
- for intimacy,
- for meaning;
- ultimately, for God.
None of what we are hungry for can be wrapped up and put under a tree; none of it can be found or lost on the stock market. Our hunger is far deeper that that.
He came to feed us with the bread of life. He came to be the bread of life for us – the food in our manger.
And that is why on Christmas eve, we gather at a table. We gather to eat supper.
We come to the Lord’s Supper at which our souls are nourished and strengthened, where our hunger for God’s presence is satisfied.
He came as a baby, lying in a manger;
He is present as the risen Lord, providing for us his food, from his table.
Come, and be fed.