As our family walks neighborhoods set alight with sparkle and joy this Advent Season, the tasteful, delightful nativity scenes that speckle the front yards of many homes are a welcome, heart-affirming sight. To discover a nativity set among the holiday penguins, dragons, polar bears, candy canes, minions, reindeer, elves, Santas, and holiday lights, is meaningful to me.
It is important to note though, that none of these nativity displays are anything but tasteful – lovely, in fact. No unpleasant stench wafts towards our family as we pass each manger in our neighborhood.
There is no malodorous mixture of animals, manure, straw, dust, dirt, and feed. The sweet, manger scene fails to ignite our olfactory senses as we ponder the silent and holy night of Jesus’ birth. We set our sights, instead, on the wonder and blessing of the moment, rather than the reality of the stink.
Because it was into the stink that Jesus was born.
The story is often told this time of year. Joseph and Mary traveled from their Nazareth home to Bethlehem. Because Joseph belonged to the house and line of David, he was required to register for the Roman census in Bethlehem. The decree was issued at an unwelcome time. Mary was ready to give birth. The journey would be arduous. Finding a place to stay within the small city would be a challenge as well. There was no choice, though.
After reaching Bethlehem, sometime during their visit, Mary realized the baby was coming. They searched in desperation for a place to deliver their child. Finally, an inn keeper took pity and offered a place of refuge – a cave enclosure for animals.
When the child Jesus was born, his mother Mary laid him in a manger.
New International Version, Luke 2:7
The manger was significant. Manger comes from the Greek transliterated word phatne. Phatne is a wooden or stone feeding trough or food box that holds hay and other fodder for animals to eat. During this time, mangers were located within places like stables, corrals, and caves. Mangers would be kept well-stocked for the care and sustenance of the cattle, donkeys, and other animals held within the stable or cave. They were no place for a baby.
I imagine Mary and Joseph would never have wanted to lay their precious infant directly on the cave floor. With a manger available, they had an alternative. The stone or wood box that stood over the ground had walls that were high and strong enough to protect their child.
In today’s age of health and sterilization, can you imagine laying a newborn child in a stinky, stable’s food trough?
Yet, Mary and Joseph did just that.
Once Jesus was inside the manger, lying on the hay, the angels took their cue. The sign was in place. This spiritual symbol would portend the miraculous.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “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 Savior 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.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So, they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.
New International Version, Luke 2:8 – 16
The manger scene was no accident.
The humble birth of the Messiah – into the stink of this world – made salvation available first to the lowly, stinky men of the earth. Shepherds lived life at the margin of society – out in the fields. They were poor, hard-working, unpretentious men. They reeked from the dirt, sweat, and animal smells of their shepherding life! Class prejudice and discrimination precluded shepherds from honor, notice, or attention.
And yet, it was into a stinky manger setting that stinky shepherds stepped to be the first to receive the joyous, life-giving news: “The Messiah has come!”
Not only that, this baby, our Savior, laying in a food trough, signified another important truth.
Jesus is the Bread of Life.
Jesus declared later in his life, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
New International Version, John 6:35
Jesus was the bread of heaven as a baby and He remains so to us even now.
Jesus, as our Bread of Life, is essential to our salvation and relationship with our Lord and Father. Baby Jesus offered the shepherds of ages past spiritual nourishment, redemption and eternal life. He does the same for us, today.
And he was birthed into the stink of our existence to give us the gift of life.
Because let’s be real, life stinks. And we stink, too.
How could we not?
Just as the smells of the sheep and fields permeated the shepherds’ lives, so, too, our families, our jobs, and our circumstances often have similar, odiferous effect.
Anxiety and worry reek.
And yet into all this stink, stink, stink, Jesus was born and laid in a manger.
So, the next time, you pass by a nativity scene this month, picture it as it really was – a small, cramped, unassuming, stinky place where Jesus was birthed – on purpose – to save us from all the stink in which we live.
He takes the stink upon himself and saves us.
If ever we needed that kind of life-giving encouragement, isn’t it now?
To read a little more:
Manger photo retrieved from https://www.mikemasonbooks.com/a-stone-manger/