Away in a manger • No crib for His bed • The little Lord Jesus • Laid down His sweet head
The stars in the sky • Looked down where He lay • The little Lord Jesus • Asleep on the hay
The cattle are lowing • The poor Baby wakes • But little Lord Jesus • No crying He makes
Away in a Manger is one of my favorite carols. It presents a beautiful picture of the baby Jesus in a stable with animals. This is the classic image of the nativity, but is this what it was really like?
“And [Mary] brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7)
Even that quotation, though, deserves a closer look. A few verses earlier the author, a first century physician named Luke, mentions that Joseph’s family was fromBethlehem. A Jewish traveler of that era, especially a poor one would almost never stay in a public hotel. Rather, they would stay with family if they could or else at a synagogue. So, why would it matter that there was no room in the inn?
Almost every Jewish home had an area for guests, often on the second floor. This was especially true nearJerusalemwhere every adult able-bodied male was required to travel three times each year, and which is less than ten miles fromBethlehem. In the Greek language this area was called the κατάλυμα (katalyma). Interestingly, this is the same word translated as “inn”. At the time of Jesus’ birth everyone was required to travel to their ancestral home by order of Caesar Augustus, so there were probably other visitors staying at the same house.
But what about the manger? Jewish families frequently kept sheep or goats for milk and wool and sometimes a donkey for labor. If a family didn’t make its living raising animals then it would only usually have one or two. It isn’t worth building and heating a stable on cold winter nights for so few animals, so they would often be brought into the family home. As a result of this practice, homes would sometimes be made with a stone manger built into the wall of the main room.
So what did the nativity scene look like? It was probably in the home of a relative of Joseph. The home was crowded because everyone in their extended family for many generations was coming to Bethlehem. It was probably not the middle of winter so there would be no animals in the house. Because there was no room in the guest area Mary and Joseph were staying in the main room with the family who owned the house where the stone manger made a perfect bed for the newborn.
You may be asking “why does it matter whether Jesus was born in a stable?” It matters because the story of Jesus is not a legend. Jesus’ story is not like the myths of Hercules or Beowulf. The birth of this little Child actually happened about two thousand years ago in a real place where you can visit today. The census prompting Joseph to go toBethlehemis recorded in other historical documents.
Doctor Luke goes on to describe the rest of Jesus life. How he lived a life of perfection, never once straying from what is right. As an adult Jesus spent about three years traveling. In that time He healed people, cured blindness, and even raised the dead. He gathered many followers and He taught them along with anyone who would listen. He taught that men and women do bad things; we do what we feel like instead of what is right and because of that we each face judgment and the eternal wrath of God.
Each of us must admit, at least to ourselves that we have at one time or another lied, or stolen, or gotten angry wrongfully, or looked at someone inappropriately. The Bible calls these shortcomings sin. Only Jesus faced all of those situations and did not give in to them. Even the Roman authorities declared Him to be without fault. He alone did not deserve God’s wrath and therefore He alone has the opportunity to endure that wrath on behalf of someone else.
Doctor Luke recounts how Jesus did just that. He voluntarily took for himself the wrath that was justly stirred in God for your sin and for mine. We are guilty and cannot pay our fine but, He has paid it for us with His suffering. If you admit your sin and trust that He has paid the penalty for it then when you stand before the judge Jesus will speak up and say “Your honor, the defendant is one of mine. I have already paid the penalty” and the case will be dismissed. This is what the Bible calls Salvation.
Don’t let another year or even a day go by without putting your trust in Jesus’ suffering on your behalf. Do not allow Him to have suffered in vain. Turn from sin and to Him and accept the salvation He is offering you. After all, that is why this Baby was born, and laid Away in a Manger.
The Wagner Family
Jacob, Rebecca, and Gabriel