The Mystery of the Manger

Have you ever considered what a strange sign the manger-crib really was?

Three years ago on Christmas Eve, I stood under mistletoe and proposed marriage to Laurin, the love of my life. The following Christmas, still newlyweds, we had the joy of telling our families that we were expecting our first child. And last year, we hung an ornament with Jonah’s newborn footprints on our tree to commemorate his first Christmas. With this recent string of incredible Christmas memories, Advent has become my favorite time of year.

But it wasn’t always so.

As a kid, I was shuffled back and forth between my mom’s house and my dad’s for the holidays. Friends told me I was lucky to get two Christmases, but I never felt that I had gained anything. No matter where I landed for Christmas, there was always someone missing — either my mother or my father.

Christmas never seemed to live up to the hype. As a result, my favorite day was December 26. The stress of the previous day was over, I had new toys to play with, and that date marked the longest possible time before another Christmas.

When the season would roll around again the next year, I’d be seduced into the Christmas mood, once again believing in the magic of Christmas — the nostalgic holiday songs on the radio, the saccharine-sweet Christmas specials on TV, and the promise of peace painted delicately onto my mother’s ceramic nativity scene.

But then Christmas would arrive, and I would have a living reminder of this broken world lived out once again in my broken home. I empathized with Charlie Brown — the only kid in town who wasn’t excited about Christmas — because the peace I longed for always seemed to be just out of reach.

The manger: a prophetic pointing to Christ’s cross

The angels who startled the shepherds on a Judean hillside that first Christmas night praised God, saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). There it was: a promise of peace — and a bit of a puzzle. Upon whom does God’s favor rest? Doesn’t God love everyone? Isn’t Jesus’ birth supposed to be “good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (2:10, emphasis added)?

As the shepherds made their way into the town of Bethlehem, they looked for signs of life in the houses that they passed and listened for the sound of a newborn baby crying. The angel had told them, “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (2:12).

The Messiah laying in a trough was supposed to be a sign for the shepherds — but isn’t the baby Jesus Himself the good news? Why, then, is there the need for a sign? It’s another mystery wrapped up in the Christmas story. But I believe the manger itself holds the key to unlocking it.

The story of Jesus’ birth has become so familiar that we tend to gloss right over the mention of the manger. Of course the Savior is asleep in a manger; that’s what we’ve come to expect. But have you ever considered what a strange sign the manger-crib really was?

A manger is a feeding trough for farm animals — out of place in a nursery, even among the poor in the first century. It would be like visiting friends in the hospital after the birth of a new baby, only to find the infant curled up in their dog’s food dish.

What’s placed inside a manger becomes food for sheep. Jesus napping there during His first few hours of postnatal life was a prophetic act pointing to the manner in which He would become our Savior. Years later, on the night He was betrayed into the hands of Jewish and Roman authorities, Jesus took bread, broke it, and told His closest friends, “This is my body given for you” (Luke 22:19). Through His death on the cross, His body was broken to become life-giving spiritual food for sheep.

In Bethlehem — a city whose name means “house of bread” in Hebrew — some 33 years prior, the manger and its occupant are foreshadowing the cross. Christmas without Easter is not good news. There can be no true joy at the birth of Jesus without the death of Jesus. If there had been no Calvary, the advent of Jesus would have been nothing more than a nice visit; it took Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday to forever undo the curse of sin.

Christmas: a celebration of brokenness undone

This brings us back to the puzzle of peace — how Jesus’ birth could mean “peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14), while also being “good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (2:10). If the good news is for everyone, then why is there peace only for some?

The joy of Christmas, and of Easter, is meant for all people. Jesus died so that men, women, and children near and far might come, kneel to Him as their good King, and rest in the salvation He wrought. Through Jesus, God invites everyone everywhere into His family and into His favor.

But while the invitation is open to all, some will see only a peasant baby in a sheep’s food box instead of a newborn King in a divinely appointed cradle. As when He grows up, many will mistake the Son of God ushering in heaven’s kingdom for a misguided carpenter-turned-rabbi. And on the cross, those without the eyes to see will be unable to recognize the unblemished Lamb of God paying the price their sin deserves so that they might have peace with the Father.

Christmas is not a denial of this world’s brokenness. It is a celebration of that brokenness coming undone. The reason I found peace so elusive as a kid was because I was looking in the wrong places. Staring harder at the broken pieces of my family or of any other heartache will not yield joy. It is only when we look to Jesus that we can see that these difficulties do not have the final word.

The peace that God promised through the angels that first Christmas night cannot be found in circumstances; it is found in spite of them. It’s as dramatic a contrast as a troop of angels illuminating the night sky above a group of filthy shepherds.

Even now, as I celebrate this Christmas with my beautiful wife and my amazing little boy, the warmth in my heart comes from knowing that their love is itself a reflection of the Father’s love toward us, seen most brilliantly in the gift of His Son.

The shepherds walked back to their fields that night praising the Lord. But nothing in their daily lives had changed. They still spent long days and nights with the sheep, were still considered unsavory by most of their neighbors, and still dealt with the disappointments this world has to offer its inhabitants.

But they came away from the manger with the peace and joy the angels had promised. They recognized that all of God’s good promises were wrapped up in those swaddling cloths. They were able to see the King and His kingdom breaking into our world — and it all started with an outpost as small and humble as a manger.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

John Greco
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