In a lowly manger: Christ birth demonstrates God’s determination to be with us, local ministers say
Prophets called him the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords; those were imperial titles, implying royal rule greater than that of even Caesar.
But instead of being born into a palace, a hospital or even a rented room, Jesus’ birth happened in a much more humble setting.
The biblical text is terse with details, stating that the Virgin Mary “brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Other than that it happened in Bethlehem, the only thing that St. Luke’s Gospel says about Jesus’ birth is that he spent his first night sleeping in a feeding trough for animals.
In the West, this has been idealized as a scene that took place in some kind of crude barn, with animals and the shepherds who that night visited the newly born Son of Man jostling for space around a baby.
In the “Protoevangelium of James,” a non-canonical infancy Gospel given a place of reverence in the iconography of the Christian East, the birth is said to have taken place in a cave.
But one thing is certain — neither a cave nor a barn seem the obvious place for the person who would claim to be one with God the Father to be born.
And while that may be counterintuitive, it is a demonstration that God loves man, said Nance Hixon, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church.
“Earlier in the gospel narrative, the angel tells Mary that the child will be called Emmauel, which means God with us,” Hixon said. “That line is at the heart of the story and at the heart of the whole Christian faith.
“When you see the manger and you see people who didn’t have the dignity to get a spot in an inn, you get a glimpse of how determined God is to be with us. Greatness and power and majesty, those are characteristics you think about with God, but they are not really God’s central characteristic — it is God’s love and God’s determination to be with us, and that is what you see with that humble, lowly setting with that vulnerable little baby.”
Rather than having a god who is like the great Wizard of Oz, who is all noise, smoke, flames and terror, the manger shakes up the notion of a god who looks at man and sees a creation too far below him to warrant care, Hixon said.
“When you actually meet God, he is in a manger, and he doesn’t let you hold on to that idea as a god who sees you as so far beneath him,” he said. “He will stoop to this low if that means he gets to be with us.”
Likewise, the setting shows that the gospel is for everyone, not just the powerful, said the Rev. David O’Connor, pastor of St. Mary Basilica.
“The original setting, as tradition tells us, was extremely humble, and there was an enormous simplicity about it — it was just an animal shelter,” O’Connor said.
“It wasn’t the better-educated, more affluent people that came to visit or discover Jesus at his birth, it was the shepherds who at that point in time were not considered to be of decent sort of people.
“The vast majority of people at that time lived close to the poverty line, and God chose the setting in which Jesus would be born to be fairly similar to what a lot of people would have experienced in order to make the point that Jesus was fully human and he is taking on humanity with all of its difficulties, so somehow God wanted to make sure that identification would be fairly obvious.”
And in that sense, the manger, one of the first things Jesus experienced in his incarnation, is at the heart of the gospel mission, said Scott Green, pastor of First Assembly of God in Natchez.
“I know a lot of people expected him, being a king, to be born in a royal palace with servants and other people to wait on him hand and foot, but the fact that he came as humbled as he did proves that he came not to be served but to serve,” Green said.
The manger also challenges notions of God’s priority when it comes to worldly prosperity.
“A lot of people tend to think that if you have a lot of money or have a big house, that those are a sign of God’s blessings on your life, but when you see Jesus, they are poor and they don’t have a good place to stay and all of this stuff that we would think of a sign of God’s blessing — that kind of shakes up those ideas, too,” Hixon said.
And while the passing centuries have seen many noble and ignoble traditional accretions to Christmas celebrations, O’Connor said the manger works even now to call everyone back to that night in Bethlehem.
That’s why the church still places a huge emphasis on the manger scene every year, he said.
“Our culture is one that places the emphasis on the commercial aspect, the social aspect or even the family aspect of Christmas, and I feel the manger scene is a stark contrast with that and a reminder of the important message that is there,” O’Connor said. “It is not a condemnation, but it keeps forward in the minds of everyone the central meaning of Christmas.”