The Mystery of the Manger

 An Advent meditation from 2008. Originally published in Pulpit Helps.

Each year at Christmas, we return to the manger. The simple image of the Messiah surrounded by livestock and shepherds is an archetype of the Incarnation and a recurring theme in our hymns and traditions.

We are right to put Christ’s infancy at the forefront of our celebration because God chose to put it at the forefront of the symbolism surrounding His coming. As if the Creator of the universe taking human form wasn’t mind-blowing enough, He chose to arrive on the scene naked and helpless, completely dependent upon His parents for nourishment and protection. In divine paradox, He was both Father and child to them.

In spite of His authority and ability to do so, Christ did not depart from these humble beginnings, returning with His family to Nazareth and apprenticing with Joseph to become a carpenter. Isaiah 53:2 says, “For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.” He never aspired to “greatness” in the human sense, content to quietly work the will of the Father and withdrawing from the praise of the masses. God-become-man demonstrated His identity precisely by not trumpeting it (Phil. 2:6); those who met Him at the manger were awed at the very ordinariness of His human form.nativity-small

Equally significant is the location of His birth. While we don’t know the exact placement of the manger (whether in a stable, on the lower floor of a house, or in a cave), it is a place not befitting human residence, let alone God’s. But it was there in that dishonorable, unsanitary space that Christ entered His world. British author and philosopher G.K. Chesterton capitalizes on this in The Everlasting Man. Seizing on the image of the cave, he writes, “It was here that a homeless couple had crept underground with the cattle when the doors…had been shut in their faces; and it was here beneath the very feet of the passersby, in a cellar under the floor of the world, that Jesus Christ was born.” Indeed, His birth as an outcast foreshadowed the life of homelessness that He and His disciples led (Matthew 8:20, Luke 9:58).

The lowly birth of Christ, as Chesterton goes on to state, is the central event of all history, the end of mythology’s dreams and philosophy’s search, and the trumpet call of victory over Satan. He says, “It is nothing less than the loud assertion that this mysterious maker of the world has visited this world in person. It declares that really…right in the middle of historic times, there did walk into this world this original invisible being about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists hand down myths: the Man Who Made the World.” The manger turns the world on its ear.

God’s entry into the world serves a larger purpose than simply flying in the face of human conventions, however. His arrival was the ultimate demonstration both of His authority over creation (in being born of a virgin) and His love and concern for man. Because He showed up in the person of Christ, His character has been demonstrated for all to see. He cannot be ignorant of poverty, for He was poor. He has ultimate sympathy for the suffering because He was tortured and gave His life. No man can accuse Him of being distant or uncaring because He is God with us. By healing the sick and rebuking the proud, He reminds us that He has entered the world to set it to rights; He will bring His justice.

He came as a man to redeem the world. He had to take part in birth and death to defeat the power of Satan over men (Heb. 2:14). As Athanasius of Alexandria put it, He came “to renew men according to His image.” Because of the manger, birth and life are honored with the presence of the King. In lowering Himself, He gave significance to the daily tasks and struggles of life. He came to set a standard by which we should also live.

This then is the mystery of the Incarnation—through all these things, He commands us to follow Him. From the manger, He bids us to follow into a life of lowliness, wandering, sacrifice, and submission to the Father. The irony of God’s destruction of earth’s status quo is that it simultaneously frees us from slavery under the law and calls us to a higher road. The very Word of God, by whom all things were made and are held together, has shown us the way, and we are to be imitators of Him. Such is the gift of Christmas.

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