From trough to cross to resurrection.
This is where the Christmas story picks up.
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.”
After generations of unstoppable conquest, after 100 years of civil war, Rome was suddenly a body at rest. There was one king. The dust cleared and everyone found that they all understood this one language. Roads were all over the place.
In the hills and valleys of the Eastern Mediterranean, all of a sudden, things were just right. Palestine was connected to the whole economic and cultural system without being dominated by it. No big wars.
It was just the right time for a Jew to make his voice heard. It was just right for the right kind of Jew.
Because a virgin was pregnant just like Isaiah said.
If you thought about it, you saw it coming – a child born from a woman to rescue.
The child was descended from King David, just like the prophet Nathan said.
He was born in the city of David, just like it said in the book of Micah.
And as all the right things were falling into place, his mother laid him in a feeding trough.
Personally, I tend to think of it as just one of the pieces in the nativity set: shepherds, frankincense, manger.
That’s a funny word: “manger.” But I have to tell you, I would have no idea what it means if it weren’t for the Christmas carols. As far as I can tell, farmers don’t use the word any more. It’s from French – manger, to eat – and it’s just an eating place. Trough, pit, the table for guests without opposable thumbs.
They are all basically the same … they’re a mess.
Remember the prodigal son, who blows all his father’s money? Where is he at his absolute low point, when he really hits rock bottom?
With the animals, wishing he could eat with them at their manger.
So here is Mary, fresh out of labor & delivery, and she lays her baby in a feeding trough. For all we know it’s been totally cleaned and disinfected. But what does it matter? Say your newborn son needs a place to rest, and the only option is an old toilet – drained, scrubbed, a nice fluffy pillow in it.
Maybe this is a good time to remember those verses about the first being last and the last being first in the kingdom of God. After all, the creator of light had already stepped down a bit when he spent 3/4 of a year in amniotic fluid. That was indeed humbling, but the trough also tells us something about what exactly Jesus came to do.
Jesus – Emmanuel – God with us – came to the trough, where life is dirty and maybe boring and not much to look at, to be with us. So she laid him in a feeding trough.
It says that she laid him, Luke 2:7, and it uses a funny word, used only five other times in the New Testament. Every other time, it means that a person sat down or reclined at a table for dinner.
So here it is: Mary reclined Jesus at the eating-place. Only it doesn’t say “at” – it says “in.” The verse is this close to saying that she made a place for him at the table, but then she puts Jesus on the table.
And we have to ask: what is the point?
The angel says: “This will be a sign for you: a baby lying in a trough.” That phrase is a pretty big deal in the Bible. This isn’t just about finding the right infant. This isn’t just about how far God came down to be with men. This is about the kind of man he would be, and like many of his signs, it’s about the kind of kingdom he would preach.
This will be a sign for you: a baby, lying in a feeding trough.
It’s becoming more clear. In order to teach us to have a love that knows no bounds, Jesus was the kind of man whose love knew no bounds. In order to be the first truly great man, Jesus submitted himself to the will of the Father. In order to show that weakness is not the one thing God cannot do (sin), she laid him in a feeding trough.
Everything came together at just the right time in world history for the great announcement of the campaign; everything was in just the right place to show what kind of campaign this would be. And at just the right moment, she laid him in a feeding trough.
This is a sign for you.
Because we still want a muscular hero to crush our enemies.
Because we still want a teacher of ethics to make a stable system.
But we disciples must go where he has gone. So: to go to the cross, we must go through the trough – where life smells, and animals pass us by and children cry and jobs are a grind, and plans for success draw out and money runs out and God is with us reclining at the table of the kingdom of heaven.
Where the first are last and the last are at the head of the table, for they have followed him from trough to cross to resurrection.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.