God’s providence arranged things so that Jesus, the Word made flesh, the King of the World and the Lord of history, would be born in total poverty. He did not even have what a poor family could have what a poor family could have lovingly prepared for their firstborn son. All He had was swaddling-clothes (narrow strips of cloth for wrapping babies in), and a manger (a feeding trough for livestock).
Why a manger?
When Jesus was born in the humble stable, probably situated inside a cave, in the little town of Bethlehem (whose meaning is “house of bread”) because there was no room for Him in the inn (Lk 2:7), His Blessed Mother, Mary, would have had to make use of what was available to her in the animals’ shelter. Not wanting to lay her Precious Infant on the cold and hard dirty ground, the manger, lined with soft warm hay, would have been the best resting place. When the Angels sang out the joyous news of His Birth to the shepherds on the hills outside Bethlehem, they were told they would find the Newborn King in Bethlehem, lying in a manger (Lk 2:12). Did they find this revelation amazing? We must assume they did, and they hurried off to seek Him in excited anticipation. There, in the stable, lying in the animals’ feeding manger, they let their eyes feast on the newborn Divine Infant.
Jesus Christ was not laid in a manger by accident; it is a major spiritual symbol. Animals go to the manger for physical food, but when we are in a state of grace, we can go to the ‘manger’ for the spiritual food of our souls, Christ’s own Body, Blood, Doul and Divinity. This infinite ‘storehouse’ of heavenly nourishment, is found wherever there is an ordained Catholic priest of the Lord, when through the act of consecration of the species, and the miracle of transubstantiation, bread and wine becomes Christ’s Most Sacred Body and Blood. It satiates our spiritual hunger in a marvellous way. Not only that, the infant in the feeding trough is the Bread of Life Himself (Jn 6:35), the true bread come down from Heaven, and whomsoever eats of this bread will live forever (Jn 6:51).
“Augustine drew out the meaning of the manger using an idea that at first seems almost shocking, but on closer examination contains a profound truth. The manger is the place where animals find their food. But now, lying in the manger, is he who called himself the true bread come down from heaven, the true nourishment that we need in order to be fully ourselves. This is the food that gives us true life, eternal life. Thus the manger becomes a reference to the table of God, to which we are invited so as to receive the bread of God. From the poverty of Jesus’ birth emerges the miracle in which man’s redemption is mysteriously accomplished.” – Pope Benedict XVI.
From a cave beneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem came the most enduring version of the Bible ever translated. In this underground study — pleasantly cool in summer but chilly in winter — St Jerome spent 30 years translating the Scriptures from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. The scholarly Dalmatian priest began his task around AD 386. The text he produced in St Jerome’s Cave was the first official vernacular version of the Bible. Known as the Vulgate, it remained the authoritative version for Catholics until the 20th century.
St Jerome, whose own cave was nearby, did not approve of the changes made to the scene of the Nativity. He writes: “If I could only see that manger in which the Lord lay! Now, as if to honour the Christ, we have removed the poor one and placed there a silver one; however, for me the one which was removed is more precious.”
God wants to fill our hearts anew with joy and gratitude for the greatest gift He could possibly give us, His Only Begotten Son, the Redeemer. Let us mould our hearts into warm and loving ‘mangers’ to welcome the Newborn King this joyful season. Liturgically-speaking, Christmastide lasts until the feast of Candlemas, but the celebration of the Incarnation lasts forever.