Mangers, of course, are dangerous
Mangers, of course, are dangerous. I learnt this a few years back when I asked one of our local farmers for the loan of a manger in order to give a touch of realism to our nativity. “Yes, of course” and he delivered a manger to the church, a large iron manger. “Thank you – but do you have a wooden one?” “You don’t have mangers made of wood,” he explained patiently. “They’re illegal.” Yes, you guessed it – health and safety. But for good reason – the wood harbours dangerous bacteria, most menacingly MTB which causes tuberculosis both to cattle and to humans. So Luke tells us: “She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” (Luke 2:6) Right at the outset baby Jesus is at risk. In his short and therefore highly edited account of the nativity, Luke refers to the manger no less than three times, clearly an important detail which needs some explanation. But why a manger? And so he gives us the reason - there was no room, no room in the guest room. Notice how modern translations do not say “inn.” As it happens Luke uses the regular word for an inn in his story of the good Samaritan. The word he uses here in explaining the manger is the same word he uses for the room where the last supper took place, a guest room. In other words, despite the innumerable nativity stories in schools and churches featuring inn keepers with their wives and various hangers-on, Luke gives us no back story. Basically all we need to know is that there was no room for baby Jesus. It seems that either he was not welcome or simply of low priority, at the back of the queue. Either way, there was no room for him. That’s it – baby Jesus: manger and no room, risk and rejection. The story of his life in three words. And of his death, as he is nailed to a cross made of wood, betrayed and rejected. As John explains: “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” (John 1:10f) What changes everything, gives us the correct perspective, is the resurrection victory of Jesus, a victory he longs to share with those who entrust their lives to him by giving him the highest priority. Jesus experienced risk and rejection so that we may now God’s safekeeping and welcome. No wonder the message of the Christmas angels, even to the shepherds, is news of great joy for all the people. So what does the manger teach us? Primarily, the extent of God's love for us, each of us – shepherds and Magi alike, the outcast and the outsider. You cannot out-imagine God's compassion for us frail human beings – however big you think his love is, it is invariably much bigger. As the apostle Pauls exults, “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” (Ephesians 318). The manger also shows us the depth of our need, the enormity of the menace that each of us faces, however oblivious we may be of its extent. It’s as if you go to your doctor’s, somewhat apologetically, with a sore throat. They examine you and immediately start making phone calls. Next moment you find yourself in an ambulance being blue-lighted to hospital for emergency surgery, the full works. As you lose consciousness through the anaesthetic, you ponder your doctor’s response and think “It must have been more serious than I thought!” Similarly, the wood of the manger and the cross show us the scale God’s response to our need. We need a saviour, desperately. Truly the message of the angels has an urgency and a depth we can scarcely appreciate. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:11f) It is Dietrich Bonhoeffer who can see the wonder of the manger: “And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succour in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.” A Merry Christmas!