AFTER JESUS WAS BORN, he was wrapped in strips of cloth and placed in a manger. A manger is a feeding trough from which donkeys, horses, and other animals eat. While we usually picture the manger as constructed of wood, the only examples we have left in the Holy Land from ancient times are actually large stones that have been carved out on top to hold straw.
Luke mentions the manger three times in just a few verses as he tells the story of Jesus’ birth. This is unusual and should lead us to ask why. Why does Luke feel it important to tell us about Jesus’ first bed? And why does he mention it three times?
One reason is obvious: the manger points to Jesus’ humble birth. It embodies a profoundly moving truth: that on his first night on this earth, the King of Glory, the Son of God, slept in a trough where the animals fed. What a picture of God’s desire to identify with the humble and the poor.
But I think Luke had something more in mind, something I had not seen in more than twenty-five years of preaching the Christmas story. I believe Luke mentions the sign of the manger three times to communicate the powerful image of Jesus’ first bed being the place where God’s creatures come to eat.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a town that means “House of Bread.” John would later describe Jesus multiplying the loaves of bread and saying, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry” (John 6:35). Jesus was, of course, speaking of a spiritual sustenance the world would receive from him. Matthew, Mark, and Luke record Jesus taking bread at the Last Supper and saying, “This is my body, which is given for you.” (See Luke 22:19.)
The manger—the feeding trough—was a sign of what Jesus came to do. He came to offer himself as bread for our souls. He came to satisfy a hunger that could not be satisfied any other way.
When Jesus was tested in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry, the devil tempted him to turn stones into bread. But Jesus responded by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, “One does not live by bread alone” (Luke 4:4). Yet one of our greatest struggles is that we forget this. We come to believe that if we have enough bread—enough money, enough stuff—we will be satisfied. But here’s something I am absolutely certain of: there is nothing you or your family members will open on Christmas morning that will ultimately satisfy the deepest longings of your heart.
I have watched people in the congregation I serve who forgot this. They found that the “cares of this world and the desire for wealth” choked out the gospel. They lived their lives for more and bigger and better; but the more they had, the less they were satisfied, like someone with a disease that leaves them always hungry, and though they eat and eat and eat, they are never filled.
Our hearts hunger to know that we are loved; that our lives have meaning and purpose; that we can be forgiven and find grace; that we are not alone; that there is always hope. We hunger to know that even death will not be the end of us; and we hunger for joy, and peace, goodness, and grace.
In this life, we wrestle with the temptation to believe that if we just had enough bread we would be happy. Luke, in the sign of the manger, is reminding us that Jesus is the only one who can truly satisfy the hunger of our hearts.