When your family celebrates your birthday with you, do they get out the old pictures and look at you as a newborn baby, lying in a crib in the hospital with a knit cap on your head to keep you warm? Do you look at the same picture year after year? I thought not.
On Washington’s birthday, do we talk about the baby born in the colonial mansion? On Lincoln’s birthday, do we talk about the baby born in the log cabin in Kentucky? On King’s birthday do we talk about the baby born in Atlanta? Generally, when we celebrate the birth of a hero, we remember the entire life and career of that hero, not merely the circumstances of his or her birth.
What is it, then, about the manger scene that makes it central to every year’s Christmas celebrations? We see it on Christmas cards and in three-dimensional displays, we see it portrayed by children, we sing about it, and every single Christmas we hear again about Mary and Joseph and the manger because there was no room in the inn. Every year we hear about angels and shepherds and Bethlehem. Every year we bring out the baby pictures and remember Jesus at the time when he was born.
The prophets spoke of a King born in Bethlehem and of a virgin giving birth to Immanuel, but the prophets never mentioned the manger. The apostles wrote about Jesus, but they did not comment on the manger. Only Luke gives us the details of a baby wrapped in cloths lying in a manger—Matthew and Mark and John did not consider the manger worth mentioning.
The cynical part of my mind thinks that the manger is celebrated because it is our chance to put God in a box. No one feels threatened by a newborn baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. The power of God and his judgment upon sin are conveniently missing from our Christmas pictures. On Good Friday and on Easter we see the cost of sin and the power of God. We are confronted by grace and mercy in a way that encourages us to confess our sins and to trust ourselves in the hands of our Savior. On Christmas, we can leave God in the manger, and we can credit ourselves with bringing gifts to him as the wise men did. We invite our Lord to “sleep in heavenly peace” while we go on celebrating his birth in a way that suits our sense of autonomy and control.
Yet that baby lying in the manger was still running the universe at the same time. That baby lying in the manger was invading a sinful world to confront and destroy evil and at the same time to rescue the victims of evil. That baby lying in a manger, relying on his mother for food and shelter and diaper changes, was almighty and all-knowing, present everywhere in the universe even while confined to a small human shape.
If Christmas is merely Jesus’ birthday, that is still no reason to skip over the rest of the life and career of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem long ago. He did not remain the Christ Child lying in a manger; his birth into this world means more than any other birth in human history. The point of Christmas is more than a birthday—it is the Feast of the Incarnation of our Lord. It is a reminder that the all-powerful eternal God became one of us, as human as we are, to battle our enemies and to defeat them, not with power but with sacrifice, because God is love.
Jesus called himself the Bread of Life. To underline the promise of that title, he was born in Bethlehem, which means “house of bread.” His first bed was a manger, the very place where sheep come to be fed. The manger is meaningful, not as a box to contain God, but as a humble place in this world where God promises to be found. The manger becomes a symbol of the other humble places where God is found—in his Word, the Holy Bible, and in the gathering of his people, the Holy Christian Church.
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the people of God will gather to hear and to sing about the baby wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger. Beyond that manger lies a cross where the Shepherd will rescue his sheep, giving them peace and eternal life by his sacrifice. May your coming Christmas celebrations bring you, not only to the manger, but to the Shepherd and the King. J.