Painting on the wall of the Kempele Old Church, Kempele, Finland, by Mikael Toppelius (1734-1821)
The word ‘manger’ is used three in the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke chapter two: in verse seven which tells us that is where Mary laid the newborn infant, in verse twelve where the angel tells the shepherds they will find this newborn Savior of the world lying in a manger, and in verse sixteen when the shepherds do indeed find the baby Jesus, lying in a manger. Mangers are wooden troughs in stables from which animals eat; so from those three references it is assumed that Jesus was born in a stable, and, that animals were present .
A stable is like a prison for an animal. In stables (or barns) there are pens, gates, stanchions, and ropes– whatever it takes to keep the animals from getting away. The animals are probably not bothered by this confinement, as long as they are fed and watered and warm. A cow probably wouldn’t get much out of a trip to the Grand Canyon anyway. And an old sow probably doesn’t care if she never gets to the Mall of America. She wouldn’t know how to act there, and all those people and all that noise would just make her nervous. I don’t think animals mind being penned up, as long as they have a little room to move around. That is all they have ever known. So the purpose of a stable is to confine animals. And why are they confined like that? So that you can have milk to drink and butter on your bread and a slice of ham on Christmas Day. Those animals are confined to those places for you.
With this in mind, the animals in every nativity scene become an illustration of what Christmas is all about. Unlike your average cow or sow, Jesus was not used to being confined. Jesus was used to being God, ruler over all things, seated with the God the Father Almighty in heaven. The message of Christmas is that Jesus chose to allow himself to be born, and thus, to be confined to a human body, living a life on this small speck of dust we call earth, in one small corner of the vast universe that He created. Not only would his birth here confine him to a very small place, but he would also be confined to limited amount of time. What a prison that would be for one who was used to being the ruler of the universe! With Jesus’ birth in that stable, the eternal God confined himself to the limits of a human life, and in the end, would allow himself even to die. And why? FOR YOU, said the angel to the shepherds. The angel said, “For you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”
Then the angel said, “You will find this baby in a manger.” Here is an accurate and wonderful symbol of the incarnation. God, in Jesus, came to earth, confining himself to a life like we are confined to; and he was born among animals, in their place of confinement. Jesus, born for you, in a place where animals are kept for you.
In the Christian story God descends to reascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down to the very roots of the Nature he has created. But he goes down to come up again, and bring the whole ruined world up with him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself under some great complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift, he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders.
–C. S. Lewis, Miracles
Luke 2:7 — She 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.
Luke 2:12 — This shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
Luke 2:16 — And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay.
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle til morning is nigh.
—Away in a Manger, verses 1-2