Why a manger?
Christ’s advent wasn’t what people had expected, but it would prove to be what they needed.
One of the most cherished symbols of Christmas for Christians the world over is the nativity scene—a depiction of Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus attended by shepherds as well as the wise men who had followed the star to witness the wondrous event. At the center of many of these scenes is a manger holding the precious babe. It lends simplicity to the scene. But it also exemplifies something else—the meekness and humility that always accompany the coming of Christ, the dawning of divine inspiration in human consciousness.
Whatever Mary’s expectations might have been for the birth of her child—the babe who would be called the King of kings—it’s hard to imagine that delivering him in a barn, then laying him in a feeding trough intended for livestock would have been her preference. Yet, with no rooms available in the inn, she had little choice.
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Was this a setback? A last resort? Outwardly, it might appear so. But from a spiritual standpoint, there’s something instructive in how these events played out. What was needed at this pivotal moment in the spiritual development of humanity was for the Savior’s birth to be free of every vestige of human will and outlining. A divine purpose was unfolding.
An element of this lesson had been revealed centuries before in these inspired words: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (Proverbs 3:5, 6). Even if we feel capable of devising a logical way to undertake whatever work we’re doing, the best and most practical and effective way is always to listen for and follow God’s guidance.
In Mary’s case, as her baby’s delivery approached, there was no time for planning. None of the aids we associate with childbirth were available. The situation was in no way what we might consider normal. But this didn’t stop the Christ, the divinity of the man Jesus, from appearing in all its grandeur. A star had already announced it. This moment belonged to God!
Nor was Mary the only one who needed to abandon human outlining regarding the coming of the Savior. The Hebrew people were waiting for the promised Messiah, but when he came, it wasn’t in a form they had imagined—perhaps a mighty fighter, or an apparition dropping down from heaven accompanied by a great earthquake. No, Christ’s advent occurred in the quiet of night, heralded by a chorus of angels, announced to the watchful shepherds, and found in the obscurity of a manger. It wasn’t what people had expected, but it would prove to be what they needed. And it offers a lesson in how God’s ideas are often revealed—without fanfare, in the quiet sanctuary of consciousness, in a form that transcends human design.
Who hasn’t vigorously explored every conceivable solution for a particular need, only to find the condition unimproved or even worsened, with seemingly no options left? Sometimes it is just this situation that forces our faith in material efforts to wane and prepares our heart for the quiet appearing of the Christ.
We may feel a great burden of responsibility from a job, assignment, or pursuit. The burden stems from thinking that we are responsible for the doing of it—that is, for generating from a limited, human identity the intelligence, creativity, or other qualities required to accomplish it. The Apostle Paul revealed an antidote to this state of mind by urging us to look not to ourselves but to God in our endeavors: “It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
God’s goodness is infinite, reflected throughout creation—including in each of us as God’s spiritual offspring. To experience this goodness tangibly, we must be ready to receive it. Humility, or willingness to surrender our personal planning to God’s direction, is necessary. As we abandon self-will, self-doubt, pride, and a personal outlining of how things should work, and completely place our faith in God’s direction and stewardship, we see His handiwork unfold in our lives. We come to see that it is God who is guiding and sustaining us, expressing in us all the spiritual qualities needed to do what’s right and good.
So how do we know when our work is God-directed and when it’s human will that is governing? We can begin every task by humbly asking for God’s guidance and then listening and following. We can be assured that even this simple act of self-renunciation will open the door to divine inspiration that will guide our work and inform our actions.
That’s what a friend of mine found after a job opportunity fell through at the last minute. Her efforts to find other work were fruitless, and she began to lose hope. But through prayer, she came to realize that, as she put it, she was not the author of her story but rather the expression of God’s story. As she set aside self-will, peace of mind replaced hopelessness and stress, and soon an idea came to thought—one so original and compelling that she knew it was God-inspired. The result was a complete change of direction that culminated in a more stimulating and fulfilling endeavor. (See Brian Webster, “Run to the river Jordan!” The Christian Science Journal, November 2019.)
We may have much work to do. But understanding that our purpose is to glorify God enables us, in a modest way, to prepare the way for a new Christ-inspired idea to appear and bless. Our work will take on higher meaning, and the results will reflect this divine impulsion. Then we will better understand the message of the manger: This is not our stage; it’s God’s.