The True Meaning of the Manger

Christ child's humble dwelling tells us much about its holy occupant

I was doing some reorganizing in our basement recently when my 11-year-old son Seth came up behind me and asked, “Dad, what is that giant metal thing in the corner?”

He was pointing toward our enormous hot water boiler. I stopped what I was doing and told him all about the large oil burner that provides our home with heat in winter. Without this burner, I explained, our home would freeze.

They were told to look for the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.

Later that night, I reflected on our little father-and-son moment in the basement. After three years of living in this house, my son had no idea what a boiler was. How many times had he seen it, walked by it, even touched it? Yet he had no understanding of its identity, how it worked, or why it was important. He is only 11, so we can certainly excuse his lack of understanding.

But how many full-grown adults today still do not have a good understanding of the Christmas story? Just like my hot water boiler, the Christmas story has many moving parts: the faithful parents, the announcing angels, the shining star, the working-class shepherds, the traveling Magi. Various elements are at work in the Christmas story, and the sad truth is that many of them are either overlooked or misunderstood.

Perhaps the most under-appreciated element is the manger itself — that feeding trough that served as Jesus’ first cradle. How many times have you driven by a Nativity scene in your town and seen a manger draped with hay? Do you know the meaning of the manger? Could you explain to a friend or family member why the manger is significant — or what it teaches us about the baby lying within? Why does the manger matter so much?

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1.) The manger signifies the identity of Jesus.
My wife gave birth to our son Ethan just four days before Christmas in 2001. When we arrived at the hospital, the birthing wing was so full my wife had to give birth inside an old operating room. That night in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, there was only one family giving birth in a dusty operating room, so we were easy to identify!

In Luke 2, the angel announced to shepherds that the Savior was born that night in Bethlehem. But how were they going to identify the right child? They were told to look for the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger (Luke 2:12).

Related: The Christmas Prep You May Have Forgotten

In that ancient culture, it was customary to wrap newborns in strips of cloth. But a newborn sleeping in a feeding trough for animals? This was totally unique and unexpected. It was the unmistakable “sign” that identified Jesus the Savior from all the other babies born in Bethlehem. Only one manger cradled a baby — and He was the only Savior given for our salvation (Acts 4:12).

2.) The manger signifies the poverty of Jesus.
Luke 2:7 states that when Joseph and Mary sought a place for the birth, there was “no room for them in the inn.” So where did they go?

Tradition says Joseph and Mary hunkered down in a nearby stable, where she gave birth. Others suggest they found a cave that was used to shelter animals. But no exact location is ever given in the Gospels.

Jesus may have been born in a stable, a cave, or even in a field under the open sky. However, Scripture does explicitly say that when Jesus was born, he was swaddled and laid in a manger.

Related: How a Christmas Pageant Revitalized My Faith

How many parents today prepare for the birth of a baby by purchasing an expensive crib, changing table, and dresser? Yet Joseph and Mary could provide none of this. Their newborn son would rest in a place where animals ate — an everlasting sign of His real poverty. The manger reminds us that Jesus stepped down out of heaven — becoming poor — so that through His redemption we might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9).

3.) The manger signifies the humility of Jesus.
We hear stories of A-list celebrities, musicians, and movie stars who insist their hotel rooms be outfitted with the finest wines, freshest fruits, fattest pillows. Yet when Jesus came from heaven to earth, He didn’t demand a royal suite with satin sheets.

Instead, He put His humility on display by spending His first night nestled in a feeding trough. No pampering. No parades. No paparazzi. Scripture is right: Jesus “made himself nothing” (Phil. 2:7). Jesus came in such a humble fashion — stooping so low — so that all who believe in Him by faith could rise to the heights of heaven (John 3:16).

Related: The Message of the Manger’s Animals

Christmas in America has become a very complicated affair, with our overabundance of parties and presents — trees and tinsel. Many of us have learned how to process all of these moving parts while still keeping Jesus at the center of our celebrations. But there are still too many people who don’t understand the holiday’s true meaning.

Too many parents can’t give an answer to their child’s questions about that Nativity scene they see. So stop and consider the manger this Christmas. See there the identity, poverty, and humility of Jesus Christ. The Savior we needed is the Savior who came to us. Joy to the world!

Pastor Ryan Day is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, where he has served for seventeen years. He is a regular contributor to LifeZette.

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