A Sign for the Suffering
I chipped a friend’s china plate as I struggled to put it on the counter. My arms are failing and I can’t quite gauge what I can and cannot do. I wanted to help clean up, to make things easier, but instead I made things worse.
I spiraled downward after that, regretting going to her house in the first place. When I surrendered my life to Christ, I felt he was going to use me. But I expected to serve out of my strengths. Not my weaknesses. It’s hard to serve when you feel inadequate.
In the midst of my disappointments, I started reading the Christmas story, trying to imagine how Mary felt.
For Mary, carrying the Son of God was costly. No one would have believed she was a virgin. Her premarital pregnancy was scandalous, bringing disgrace to everyone affected. Yet God had called her to this. He had entrusted her with carrying his precious Son who would reign over his people, and all the nations, forever.
Mary had been given an incredible honor. So she might have expected something notable to happen before Jesus’s birth. Earthly kings had fanfare associated with them. How much more the Son of God?
A Crude Feeding Trough
So Mary may have felt disheartened as she trudged, in the last stages of pregnancy, to Bethlehem, about eighty miles away. With no one to help her but Joseph, her betrothed. The Bible does not mention her even having the donkey we like to imagine her riding.
Where was Joseph’s family? They must have gone to Bethlehem for the census too, but they don’t appear to have accompanied the young couple. Were Mary and Joseph not welcome with the rest of his family? All we are told was that the couple went together with nowhere to sleep but a stable.
And as she was delivering Jesus, did Mary wonder why God had not intervened? Scripture does not record that this birth was anything other than ordinary. Messy, bloody, the way all babies are born. And then wrapped in swaddling cloths according to the custom. All very typical. Very human.
And where to lay him? In such a familial society, surely most women would be surrounded by relatives, eager to rock a newborn baby. But Mary and Joseph were alone and exhausted. So where in a draughty stable of beasts do you lay your newborn infant?
They chose a manger. A crude feeding trough for animals. It was the best they could do under the circumstances.
A Sign to the Shepherds
I wonder what Mary thought as she placed Jesus in a manger. Was she hesitant to put him there? Did it feel safe? Did she and Joseph have to shoo the animals away as they came to the manger in search of food? Did seeing the manger highlight for her the desperation of her situation? As she watched her sleeping baby, did she wonder if this was really what God had planned?
And then the shepherds came. They told the young couple all that had happened. Angels proclaimed his birth and sang of God’s glory.
It must have thrilled Mary to hear the shepherds’ account. Though she and Joseph had been alone at his birth, heaven had been rejoicing. And the heavenly host had sent the shepherds to come and worship Jesus, confirmation that her sleeping baby was indeed the Son of God.
And how did the shepherds find them? How did they know it was the Savior?
The manger. The shepherds knew it was the Christ-child because of the manger. That was their sign from God. The angels had said, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).
There might have been other babies born in Bethlehem that night. And they may have been wrapped in swaddling cloths. But no other child would have been laid in a manger.
This manger, this messy, dirty, smelly feeding trough, was the sign that God used to show the shepherds where the Savior lay.
God’s Ordained Mess
Signs in the Bible were significant. Gideon’s sign was the wet fleece and dry ground, and vice versa. Hezekiah’s sign was the shadow that went backward. And Ahaz’s sign was that a virgin would conceive. All of these were miraculous. Extraordinary. And unnatural.
And so as Mary put Jesus into the manger, it must have felt unnatural for her as well. No one would expect to find a baby in a manger. Let alone the Son of God. It was as remarkable as the other signs.
When the shepherds told Mary of their “sign,” it must have been an amazing confirmation for her. One that she treasured. The manger had been God-ordained all along. She hadn’t escaped God’s notice.
Perhaps Mary needed a sign just as much as the shepherds. To know that she was in God’s will. That God was still with her. That she was being used by God.
God’s Strange Confirmation
We all want that sign. We want confirmation. In our natural world, we think confirmation of our decisions is that things go well. They fall into place. They get tied up with a bow.
But what if the confirmation in the kingdom of God is that things get increasingly hard? The opposite of what we wanted? More humbling than we ever expected?
What if the confirmation is that God is with us in our desolate places? What if the confirmation is the manger?
When our dreams and plans are falling apart, and our life feels humble and obscure when we were hoping for something prettier, maybe we are exactly where God wants us to be. Where he can use us most.
God at Work in Our Deepest Pain
So as I mourn my weakness and disappointments, I remember the manger. My suffering is not glamorous. No one’s suffering is. It’s messy and painful and humbling. And yet God is glorified in it.
The manger highlights the way God uses our deepest pain, our humiliation, the things we wish were different, the despised and the lowly, to bring him the greatest glory. God’s kingdom is upside down. The last shall be first, the weak shall be strong, and the foolish shall shame the wise.
And God incarnate will be laid in a manger.
Let us join that multitude of heavenly hosts, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14).