—by Venice R. Williams

…she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2:7).

The manger captivated me as a child. Each year I anxiously awaited the approach of the Advent season and Christmas program rehearsals at Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church in Pittsburgh.

Our “production” was usually managed by Mrs. Praither, Mrs. Jackson or Mrs. Pope. The other children and I were eager to learn if we’d been assigned hoped-for roles. Signs of the season were all around us. The Advent wreath, for example, had reappeared, soon after Thanksgiving, from its box in the storage closet. But the manger? Only after a couple of Christmas pageant practices would our dedicated Sunday School teachers (turned theater directors, casting agents and set
designers) unearth the wooden cradle with its scraggly hay.

Whenever they brought out the manger, they handled it like fine crystal. My spirit would awaken, and my eyes would fill with tears I did not understand. Seeing the manger brought a kind of healing and knowing that nourished my soul. I did not need to be cast in the role of Mary. I did not need to carry a box of frankincense or myrrh. I just needed to stand for a little while right by the manger, where I could touch it, smell its musty odor, close my eyes and imagine Jesus in it. The real Jesus. Not the baby doll some child no longer wanted.

Why did I connect so strongly with a simple wooden object, the first bed for the Son of God? Not until I had a husband and two children, and I was serving as stage manager for the Christmas program at Cross Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, did I understand.

“…this will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).

All my life, I have needed a sign to know that there was something more. Something more than the fear and violence always waiting to be unleashed in my childhood home. Something more than the secret touches and body movements that happened when not enough people were around. Something more than the loud silence that followed in a home with such a fragile love.

All my life, I have hungered for a kind of assurance; a positive declaration intended to give confidence; a promise that everything—every single thing, not just some things sometimes—would one day be better. The manger was my sign of assurance—an affirmation and guarantee.

Interestingly, the word “manger” has its roots in the Old French word magnier, meaning “to eat,” and the Latin word
manducare, meaning “to chew.” Jesus was placed in a manger—a feeding trough where the most meager of animals came to be nourished and sustained. No wonder I craved this wobbly manger! It spoke to my hunger for a life yet to be lived; a life not
sprinkled with so much pain and confusion. It filled so many empty places and broken promises.

You see, the manger is more than a cradle for Baby Jesus. It is a cradle of hope and endurance for all God’s children. During
those difficult childhood years, it was as if God was saying to me: “Come, little Venice. Come stand by the manger. Have your longings quenched by the One who changes everything. Be a witness to the promise made flesh. Feast on that promise.”

Today my circumstances are thankfully much changed, but my need to rehearse the story remains. Just like the shepherds,
the wise men and the others who followed the star, I need to stand at the manger. So do you.

When Luke shares the story of the manger in the stable filled with servant animals (he is the only Gospel writer to do so), it reminds us of our worth. When we come to the manger, we come to understand that God meets the most dismissed and devalued among us in the most humble, lowly places. God, through Jesus (our Emmanuel), meets us, feeds us and makes us whole.

Emmanuel, of course, means God with us. It is as if God is saying: “I see you. I am with you.

Here is Jesus, the bread of life.

Here is the manger, my banquet table. Here is where all of your empty, fragmented spaces can
be filled.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them (Luke 2:15-18).

And so now it is your turn. Dear Child of God, what within your life’s tapestry needs to come to the manger? Will you serve as stage manager for this year’s arrival of Baby Jesus in someone’s life? Who is longing for enough grace and mercy to make bodies tremble and souls erupt? Whose faith and whose spirits need to be nourished? Which sibling, parent, cousin, neighbor, co-worker, church member or stranger needs to hear the voice of God saying, “I see you; I am with you” to them?

You see, as followers of Jesus, we are called to be mangers. We are here to be signs of light when the world seems dim. You and I can be a humble source of tenderness when the world offers too much roughness and hurt. We can remind others that—even when promissory notes with others no longer hold true—God made a sacred covenant with us and for us.

Being Christian means you and I at times must serve as small cradles of hope and compassion, welcoming tables where others may come and nibble on our faith. In this way, they will come to know a God of grace who does not abandon us, but rather restores us. So bring them to the manger. I will meet you there.

Venice R. Williams is executive director of Alice’s Garden Urban Farm and The Body and Soul Healing Arts Center, both in Milwaukee. She is also the developer of an ELCA worshipping community called The Table.

This article is from the December 2018 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.