We love the manger scene at Christmas-time. But if you think about it, a stable is not exactly the kind of place you’d want to have a baby. We would much prefer the hospital to a cave. We’d rather hear the controlled voice of a doctor and a labor coach than a cacophony of cows mooing, sheep baaing, and goats grunting. We’d much prefer a climate-controlled room with a sanitized bassinet than a cattle trough that was likely made of stone, chiseled in the floor and filled with hay.
Having babies has always been a risky business, and often the places where people have laid babies after birth have been a bit dodgy. The crib as we know it, for example, wasn’t invented until the 1800s. Before then, infants generally slept with their mothers, which we now know can be dangerous.
The baby crib was invented and raised up from the floor because there was a belief that toxic fumes existed at floor level and explosive fumes hovered near the ceiling of any room, thus the crib was raised to put the baby in the “good air” in between. Of course, the cribs were then painted with lead paint and had drop sides, making them dangerous, too.
But one of the most bizarre baby conveyances emerged in the early 1900s, when experts thought that fresh air, particularly cold air, was vital to a child’s health and development. If you lived in a city, however, getting out regularly was a problem, so mothers improvised. In 1922, a woman named Emma Reed applied for a patent on a “baby cage” – a device that attached to an open window like an air conditioner where a baby could catch some fresh air while suspended several stories above the street.
Even with all the modern safety improvements we’ve made (including not hanging children out the window), raising kids is still a risky business. But it was even riskier in the first century. Mary put Jesus in a manger because she really had no other choice. The Super 8 motel was full and the barn to the rear of the inn was the only place left for privacy. Mary herself would have been at high risk in giving birth. It was a dangerous situation, much more so than we can imagine given our postcard images of the nativity.
But if the manger itself was a dangerous situation, the little baby wrapped in cloths lying within it was even more so. It’s hard to think of a baby as dangerous – a toddler, maybe, but not a newborn. And yet, just eight days after his birth, the old man Simeon would declare at his dedication in the temple that this child would be “destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”
Those are ominous words about a baby. Then again, this is a very particular baby who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin. As the angel had announced to Mary, this child “will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (1:35). In John’s Gospel, he is “the Word” of God made flesh and who dwelled among us (John 1:14). This baby is God become human.
This in itself is a dangerous statement to make for two reasons: First, if Jesus is fully divine, fully God, then all other definitions of God are rendered false because we like to think of God as being, well, God – and nothing else! Certainly not human. And, second, if Jesus is fully human, then all other definitions of true humanity are also false, because we do not want to burden ourselves with the knowledge that we could be better than we are.
This a problem in a world in which, from the very beginning, people have tended to manufacture their own gods and where people have tended to see being human as a limited and undesirable thing. We like our gods to be “spiritual” and consign them to a distant sort of heaven where we can keep them at arm’s length and not have them interfere with us very much, and we tend to hold up our humanity as a default excuse for our brokenness. After all, we’re “only human.”
In Jesus, however, we learn that God is not unknowable, distant and unconcerned with human affairs. We learn that the God who created the heavens and the earth is intimately involved in creation to the point of coming to walk among people in person. A God who becomes human is a God who must be reckoned with, and that makes this baby dangerous.
We cannot consign him to heaven because he has come to earth. We cannot push him aside as a figment of our imagination, because he has come with a human face.
He is a God who has entered fully into the human mess, living in poverty, living as a refugee and living with people who have major issues. When he lived among us, he associated with outcasts and gave help to the poor, the sick and the broken. He cared about immigrants and strangers. He is a God who has come not only to live but to die for the people he created.
The people of Jesus’ own day couldn’t wrap their heads around this sort of God who was also human and who deigned to come down off Olympus and live as a mortal. The world continues to struggle with this concept. Better to have a God we can control and keep out of the public square than one who enters our mess and gets personal.
The manger-laid child Jesus would one day be dangled above a city street – not in a cage but on a cross. Because of the cross, we are reconciled to God, given the light of God’s Spirit dwelling in us, to be lived out in our fully human lives that are meant to reflect and hold together both the human and the Divine.
This is the life he came to bring us. This is both the danger and the opportunity represented in the manger. It’s a danger because it challenges us in our less-than-human ways of life, and it brings hope because we see that real human life is a gift that God has gone to great lengths to redeem.
Speaking of mangers, in Finland there is a 75-year-old tradition that every expectant mother in the country gets the gift of a large box from the government that is filled with baby supplies, including clothing, bathing products, sleep sets, bedding and even a small mattress. With the mattress in the bottom, the box is designed to become the baby’s first bed.
When the tradition was started in the 1930s (about the same time moms in the U.S. and England were hanging their babies over the street), the infant mortality rate in Finland was 6.5 percent. Once the box was introduced and babies had not only the clothes and supplies they needed but also a secure and safe place to sleep, those rates dropped sharply. It was the gift of a cardboard box cradle that made all the difference and is still making a difference today. Everyone is offered one and, in Finland, everyone takes it. It’s a gift for new life!
At Christmas, we remember that we have been handed a similar gift: a manger box filled with the gift of a child who changes everything. Here is all we have ever needed. Here is the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity. It’s a box containing danger for a world in darkness, but the ultimate gift of life for all who will receive him. He is a gift offered for all of us.
Yes, there’s danger in the manger. But the manger is a game changer. Have a blessed and joyous Christmas.