I once asked my third grade Sunday School class if they knew what a manger was.
Third graders are still wide-eyed and honest enough to answer without worrying about appearing silly. Their answer was that it is a bed for a baby. This is not a surprising answer, considering that most children, even in our rural community, have no experience with barns and barnyard animals.
How interesting that a word which describes an object built to hold animals’ food now means something totally different to a whole generation of people.
I have spent cold nights in the barn waiting for a birth. Sometimes when a ewe is about to have a lamb, I have settled down on the straw in a corner to wait. The barn smells of wool and straw and manure. Often it is cold. The straw gets hard after a while. It pokes through your clothes. Sitting on the floor is in itself a challenge as I get older. The discomfort is not surprising. It is, after all, a barn, not a hospital maternity ward.
In spite of the physical discomfort and the smells, there is something peaceful about the barn in the middle of the night. The animals are quiet, except for the low murmuring of mothers to their babies and the deep labored breathing of those sheep who are left to lamb. Occasionally, a barn cat will curl up next to me, glad for the company and the extra warmth. There is no television, no radio, no conversation. There really is nothing to do but wait.
If we have never spent the night in the barn, is it possible that we can miss the point of the baby Jesus being placed in a manger instead of a crib?
My guess is that Mary and Joseph ended up staying in the barn with the animals, not simply because there was no room. I would bet that if they had been wealthy enough, they would have found rooms available. They, and many others, were poor and the rooms which they could afford were probably rented early. They were not part of the richest one percent for whom anything and everything is readily available. They belonged to the bottom of the 99 percent of the economic spectrum.
When Jesus grew up, he quoted the prophet Isaiah when he said he had come to “bring good news to the poor.” He did not forget that he had been born in a barn and that his first bed was a feed trough. He knew what it meant to not be able to afford food and the amenities of life. He understood that people are hungry because they are poor, not because there isn’t enough food in the world. He knew poverty first hand.
If we glamorize the place of Jesus birth, forget that a manger is not a crib, romanticize the smells of the barn, the prickliness of the straw, and the desperation that his parents must have felt in that situation, isn’t there a danger that we might miss an important part of the story? I don’t believe it was an accident that this King was born poor and in a barn. If God is all powerful, surely, a royal family and a palace was an option. Perhaps, God wanted his Son to be able to understand and empathize with the poor and powerless, to turn what society thought was important upside down.
I feel fortunate to have spent a night in the barn. I know it is cold and smelly and uncomfortable. I also know the peace that can be found there in the quiet amidst the grunting breaths, the murmuring ewes. I know the joy and hope in the cry of a new lamb looking for its mother and in the reassuring bleat of her answer.
May you find comfort, hope and joy as you remember Jesus’ birth in a barn and his being put to sleep in a feed bunk.
Copyright © 2011 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains