The still night air was broken by the sight of an angel glowing with the glory of the Lord - and shepherds trembled in fear below, not realizing that they were about to be among the first to greet the Son of God in the flesh. With his announcement of "good news that will cause great joy for all the people," the angel heralded the turning of the ages (Luke 2:10). Then, more angels appeared, praising God. This news was too big for a single messenger to carry; the time had come for the Lord to fulfill all His promises.
When the sky rolled back into place and the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds lost no time hurrying into town. They looked for the sign the angel had promised: "a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger" (2:12). And they did indeed find the newborn Savior, just as the angel had said.
Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph placed Jesus in a manger - but not specifically as a sign. For these new parents, Jesus' feeding trough-crib was born out of necessity, as "there was no guest room [traditionally "inn"] available for them" (2:7). But was the sign for the shepherds simply the peculiarity of seeing a baby in a manger? Or did the manger itself indicate the way in which Jesus would become their Savior?
Nativity scenes decorate our homes, our lawns and our Christmas cards. For many of us, the manger is a reminder of the true meaning of the holiday, and for some, it's a pledge of allegiance to tradition when Christmas' Christian roots seem to be threatened. But in ancient Judea, a manger was not a decoration. It was a small, hollowed out stone box where food would be placed for sheep and other animals.
Christmas is good news because of Easter, but there would be no cross without the manger.
And it was in a manger - a food box - that Jesus was laid as a baby. Years later, Jesus would take bread, break it and tell His disciples, "This is my body given for you" (Luke 22:19). The sign of the manger, it seems, marked Jesus' chief purpose in coming to earth.
Jesus would also declare, "I am the bread of life. ... This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world" (John 6:48,51). It is fitting then that the "bread of life" is born in Bethlehem (literally, the "house of bread"). This too is a sign. Jesus' birth in Bethlehem is more than the happenstance of a census decree or the ancestral privilege of the King who would sit upon David's throne. In the Christmas story, we discover that the manger sits in the shadow of the cross.
The shepherds were forever changed that first Christmas night - and their example is one we can follow as we celebrate Christ's birth in our world of tinsel and eggnog lattés, far removed from first-century Bethlehem. First, they shared their experience with everyone they could find. They couldn't stop talking about Jesus - and what God had done for them (Luke 2:17).
Second, they left the manger "glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen" (2:20). Shepherds lived transient lives and were often peasants. As a result, most Judean shepherds spent their lives on the fringe of society, feeling disconnected from the God of Israel. But now God, through Jesus, had brought these men near - and they couldn't help but worship!
Finally, the shepherds broke the first rule of being shepherds: They left their flocks (2:16). Given the proximity of Bethlehem to Jerusalem, it's possible that these men were shepherding sacrificial lambs for use in the temple. But they walked away in search of the new thing the Lord was doing, no longer trusting in the blood of sheep or bulls.
There is nothing we can do to make our way to God, so at Christmas, God made His way to us. New life will not be found in anything we might do for God - only in what Jesus has done for us. Christmas is good news because of Easter, but there would be no cross without the manger.
John Greco is a writer and editor for an international Christian ministry in Atlanta, where he lives with his wife, Laurin, and son Jonah. He is the author of Manger King: Meditations on Christmas and the Gospel of Hope.