What Bethlehem Is Really Like (Part 3)

Photo taken during my trip to Israel in 2009.

This is the spot commemorating where Mary and Joseph laid Jesus in the manger. For some reason, the artwork is blocked by a wire screen. Still, you can glimpse the artwork. You can see Mary on the left. Then there are two or three other people. One must be Joseph. The other may be shepherds, or maybe an angel is present. It’s hard to tell.

The Grotto of the Manger is about 10 feet away from the Grotto of the Nativity, which is said to mark the spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Last year in my Christmas Eve sermon, I focused on the manger. The rest of this blog post is a portion of that sermon:

The manger is a special symbol within the Christian faith. I’ve never seen a nativity scene with the shepherds passing Jesus around, each taking a turn at holding him. No, Jesus is found in the manger.

The manger is mentioned three times in the Christmas Gospel. In Luke 2:7, we’re told Jesus was laid in a manger. In verse 12, the angel told the shepherds, “This will be a sign to you: You will find the baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Verse 16 tells us that the shepherds found Jesus in the manger. The manger figures prominently in the story.

You may know what a manger was used for. It was a feeding trough. Cows ate hay out of it. Did it ever occur to you that a manger was an unsanitary place for a baby? It would be like laying a baby in the dog’s water bowl. Jesus was laid where cows slobbered.

Some mangers were made from clay mixed with straw, or stones held together by mud. Some were carved into rock in the side of a cave. I suppose it was safer to place Jesus in an elevated, enclosed structure like a manger than to lay Him on the ground where an animal might step on Him. The manger may not have been the most sanitary place, but at least it protected the newborn Jesus.

I’m sure the manger wasn’t what Mary and Joseph envisioned as a bed for their baby. Back in Nazareth, surely they had a nursery ready. Crib assembled, changing table, walls painted baby blue and decorated with the letters J-E-S-U-S.

That’s where He was supposed to lay. Not in a manger. But a manger was the best they could do under the circumstances. They had traveled far from home for the mandatory census. They didn’t have a comfortable place to stay – no room in the inn. The setting wasn’t ideal, but it was the best they could do.

Maybe you can relate to Mary and Joseph: doing the best you can under the circumstances. You didn’t have a great upbringing. You were made to feel inadequate, or alcohol was ever present, or you lacked good role models. You carry the baggage of a less-than-ideal upbringing.

Or you might be dealing with less-than-ideal health. You have a condition that you just have to live with. You’re fighting through an illness, or recovering ever so slowly from a surgery or an illness. You’re not at full strength, but you’re doing the best you can under the circumstances.

Maybe your finances are not where you want them to be.

Or you’re not in the job you want to be in.

Or you’ve endured setbacks from which you haven’t fully recovered.

You may know very well what it’s like to do the best you can with what you’ve been given. “Play the hand life deals you.” “Bloom where you’re planted.” “It is what it is.”

As Mary and Joseph were doing their best under the circumstances, God was doing His best for them and for all of sinful humanity. And His best is more than enough. When the Word became flesh – when Jesus was born – God was giving the world His very best: His one and only Son. God took your salvation so personally that “when the time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law.” (Galatians 4:4) The bed was less than ordinary, but the baby on the bed was extraordinary, a gift sent from heaven for our salvation.

If you missed yesterday’s post, “What Bethlehem Is Really Like (Part Two),” click here.

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Author: Christopher Kennedy

Senior Pastor at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, School, and Child Care in San Antonio, Texas. Husband to my beloved Ashley. Dad to the four most wonderful children in the world.

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