The Advent Season is, as we know, a time of waiting, waiting for the “advent,” or coming of Jesus. My family has celebrated that waiting, like many others, with traditions such as Advent calendars and wreaths, but the Advent waiting also happens around a manger, an empty manger. Indeed, it is as though the manger itself is waiting. And I see more than one manger. I see billions.
Serving for years outside of the United States, our Christmas decorations didn’t make too much of
a splash. The little we had, however, held great significance. One very small nativity scene adorned our table. One small Joseph. One small Mary. A very small baby Jesus. And, of course, a manger. The manger remained empty through all of Advent, with baby Jesus hidden away. And then, on Christmas Day we would bring out the tiny Jesus and place him in that tiny manger. It was a big moment.
Nowadays we have a lot more Christmas razzle and dazzle than we did in those years, but still I like to keep my focus on the manger. I encourage you to consider doing the same. Turn away from all the cheery sparkle and glitz, and look at the manger. That, my friends, is where Jesus is coming!
Interestingly, most manger or “nativity,” scenes don’t represent especially well the actual setting that welcomed our newborn Savior. Our Western assumptions and traditions have placed the baby Jesus in a wooden feeding trough, side-by-side with animals in a stand-alone stable, all because there were no vacancies at the local hotel when Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, with Mary suddenly in labor. Perhaps we can better focus on the manger if we have a different picture in mind.
Luke’s Gospel gives some details, but leaves out others:
Joseph went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.Luke 2:4-7
Given Middle Eastern understandings of family and hospitality, both then and now, it is likely that Joseph arrived in Bethlehem with Mary some weeks before the birth, and were received, as would be customary, into the home of one of his distant relatives. Then, as Luke reports, “the time came for her to give birth.” Luke explains that there was no place for them in the kataluma. This Greek word is far better translated “guest room” (See also Luke 22:11). A typical Bethlehem home of that time would have had a separate room for guests, often on the rooftop. With such a room being crowded with yet others visiting for the census, Mary needed to give birth elsewhere. As is still true in many rural areas of the world, a family in Bethlehem would bring their animals into part of their home for the night, an indentation in the floor serving as a feeding trough. In the morning they would move the animals outside and sweep the room, making it available for other uses during the day. Think of an attached garage that is also used for family activities. In such a space Jesus was born and laid in a manger. Strikingly common and shockingly humble, this was God’s choice for where the Messiah would enter the world he came to save.
Looking at the manger, we see that Jesus came not with divine power and spectacle, nor by human plan or design, but in the lowliest and unlikeliest of earthly conditions, for the sake of those who were themselves lowly and lost sinners. Remarkably, though he now reigns from on high, he still comes to the lowly, for the lowly, and in the lowly. He still seeks out “mangers” waiting for him, humble human hearts and homes that with both neediness and trust will receive him as their only hope and salvation.
I pray that this Christmas you are able to see yourself as such a “manger,” no longer waiting, but already blessed by his grace and presence in your life. But as you wait to celebrate Jesus’ arrival, please also look at the empty manger and consider your fellow human beings who, though created and loved by God just as you are, still await his saving Gospel. At the humble margins, along the lowly fringes, and in the least reached and farthest corners of the world other “mangers” still await the coming of Jesus! They remain empty of the peace and hope that Jesus alone can give. They so very much need Jesus to be born in them. Please pray for that! Pray that the One who came a lowly servant will send out his lowly servants to hearts and homes around the globe that even now the Holy Spirit is preparing to be new “mangers” for Jesus. Look to where Jesus isn’t yet. That’s where he’s coming! And finally, when all the peoples of the world have received Jesus – that will be a big moment indeed!