Away in a Manger

By Lee Magness

Luke tells us three things about the location of Jesus’ birth: the town, the building, and the furniture. First, Luke emphasizes that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, mentioning the town four times (2:4, 6, 11, and 15). Bethlehem was a farming village, insignificant except for one thing—being the birthplace of King David. No, make that two things—Bethlehem means “house of bread.” Jesus, the “bread of life,” was born in the “house of bread.”

1communion4_JNSecond, Luke tells us there was no guest room for Mary and Joseph when it was time for Jesus to be born (Luke 2:7). This “guest room,” often translated “inn” was, in Greek, a kataluma. The word actually refers to the upstairs guest room of a private home. Since there was no room in the already crowded guest room of one of Joseph’s relatives, Jesus’ parents were shown to the next best place in the house, the lower story where in other seasons animals were kept. It was vacant and private.

The guest room was normally used as a dining room. In fact, the only other time kataluma is used in the New Testament is in reference to the room where Jesus met with his followers for the Last Supper (Luke 22:11; Mark 14:14). Instead, the family found themselves in another dining room, one usually used by lowly animals. At his birth, there was no dining room for Jesus in the kataluma. But the night before his death, he made room in the kataluma, sharing dinner, especially wine and bread.

Third, Luke tells us they laid the newly born and bound baby in a manger. Luke is clear on this (2:7, 12, and 16). A manger is a feed trough made of wood or stone. Contrary to Christmas customs, Christmas crèches, and Christmas carols, there was no straw in the manger. Straw is for bedding, not for feeding.

“Away in a Manger” gets it right—”the little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.” The feed trough with its hay, its fodder, its food, was the perfect place to symbolize what Jesus meant when he said about the Passover bread, “This is my body given for you” (Luke 22:19).

The bread of life, born in the house of bread, lying like hay in a manger, crowded out of a dining room into which he later crowded, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body”—it all brings us to this moment, this meal, this birth, this death.

Lee Magness is a teacher at Milligan College and Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee.

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