The Babe Lying in a Manger
1. And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.
2. This enrolling was first made when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
3. And all went to be enrolled, everyone to his own city.
4. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was from the house and family of David,
5. To be enrolled with Mary his betrothed wife, being great with child.
6. And it came to pass, [that] while they were there, the days were fulfilled that she should bring forth;
7. And she brought forth her firstborn
Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling-clothes, and laid Him in the manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Whereas chapter one focused on the birth of John the Baptist, chapter two focuses on the birth of Jesus the Christ. It begins with a simple description of Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem. This journey was necessary because a proclamation had gone out from Caesar Augustus, declaring that all people must return to their city of birth to be registered. So “Joseph went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem … to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child” (Luke 2:4-5).
In contrast to the royal decree of Caesar Augustus, proclaiming that “all the world should be registered,” we are given the simple story of Mary and Joseph seeking lodging in Bethlehem, and finding none. The only thing they could find was the shelter of a lowly stable, and the only crib for their baby was a manger—a feeding trough for animals.
“And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in the manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6-7).
The story of God coming to earth and finding “no room” in the inn is rich with spiritual meaning. It symbolizes the way in which our lives can become so busy, so filled with the concerns of daily living, that we have no room — no place in us — where Christ can be born. It also symbolizes how quietly and unobtrusively the miracle birth takes place in our lives.
There is something profound about Christ being laid in a place where animals feed.
Interestingly, this is the only gospel that mentions the manger, and it does so three times. In verse seven we read that “they laid Him in a manger.”
In verse twelve we read, “This will be a sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And in verse sixteen we read, “And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby who was lying in a manger.” The symbolic picture of the Holy Babe, lying in a feeding trough, foreshadows a great reality—that Jesus is the very source and sustenance of our spiritual lives, even as food is the source and sustenance of our natural lives. This is why He would later say to His disciples as He invited them to eat the Passover bread, “This is My body” (Luke 22:19).
In a gospel which focuses on the development of the understanding, it is most appropriate to understand the significance of a “manger” — a place where animals feed. Our own understanding feeds on truth that comes to us from God. This is the truth that will nourish us on our spiritual journeys, feed our hunger for spiritual knowledge, and help us to develop a strong inner spirit. Again, it warrants repeating that this is the only gospel that mentions the “manger.” 1
8. And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, and keeping watch over their flock by night.
9. And behold, the angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they feared with great fear.
10. And the angel said to them, “Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people.
11. “For to you is born this day a savior, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David.
12. “And this [shall be] the sign to you: you shall find [the] babe wrapped in swaddling-clothes, lying in a manger.”
13. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14. “Glory in the highest to God, and on earth peace, good will among men.”
15. And it came to pass, as the angels went away from them into heaven, the men, the shepherds, said one to another, “Let us now go even to Bethlehem, and see this saying that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.”
16. And they came in haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger.
17. And when they had seen, they made known abroad the saying which was spoken to them concerning this little Child.
18. And all who heard marveled at those things which were spoken to them by the shepherds.
19. But Mary kept all these sayings, pondering [them] in her heart.
20. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, as it was spoken to them.
The setting for the next episode shifts from the stable to the countryside: “Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Luke 2:8). A key phrase here is “keeping watch.” Once again, as in the prologue where it is said that they were “eyewitnesses” (Luke 1:2), there is a reference to sight — this time in the phrase, “keeping watch.” This corresponds to the operation of the intellect, the part of our mind that understands, reasons, analyzes, and “watches.” In this case, watching over the “flocks,” refers to our God-given ability to watch over and guard those tender, innocent thoughts and feelings that God has given us. These are the states in us that want to follow God and live according to His Word. Like sheep who follow their shepherd, we follow where God leads, receiving both goodness (green pastures) and truth (still waters) from Him. Then, like a shepherd who guards the flock and watches over them, we make sure that false thoughts and negative emotions do not break in to harm the “sheep” — especially at night. And so we read that these shepherds were “keeping watch over their flocks by night.” 2
On an individual level, we must be ever vigilant, keeping watch over the “flocks” within us. We need to observe our thoughts and feelings, noticing the subtle changes as they occur. This kind of self-examination is essential; without it we open ourselves to be preyed upon by wolves of every sort, the kind that would sneak in and destroy every innocent thought and tender emotion we might have. We must, therefore, be good shepherds, guarding our heavenly thoughts and feelings. We must learn to “keep watch.” 3
In addition to protecting our innocent states, keeping watch also helps us to be aware of the noble thoughts and benevolent emotions that are flowing in from God. This is the light which is given while we are watching for the coming of the Lord, even in our darkest states. As it is written: “And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Luke 2:9)
The great light which shone upon the shepherds was accompanied by a wonderful proclamation: “Behold,” says the angel, “I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people” (Luke 2:10).
This is only the beginning of the proclamation, but it is interesting to compare it to the proclamation that began this chapter, announcing that all the world should be registered. The contrast between the two proclamations is striking. The royal decree of Caesar Augustus is about the census, civil government, and taxation. But the angelic proclamation is about the advent of the Lord in our lives. “I bring you good tidings of great joy,” says the angel, “which will be to all people.”
The wonderful proclamation continues: “For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
The proclamation is accompanied by another burst of light and there is even greater glory as the words of the angel are supported by a host of other angels: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God” (Luke 2:13). In words of highest praise, now proclaimed by a multitude of angels, the angelic proclamation continues: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to all people” (Luke 2:14).
This was the manner in which the miraculous birth of Jesus was proclaimed to the shepherds. In response, the shepherds promptly went to Bethlehem to visit Mary, Joseph, and the Christ-child. After their visit, they made widely known all things told them concerning the child. Their immediate willingness to proclaim the Good News everywhere is contrasted to Mary who “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
The response of the shepherds reminds us of the Gospel of Mark, so full of the spirit of evangelization and proclamation. At the end of that gospel the disciples “went out and preached everywhere” (Mark 16:20), just as the shepherds do in the Gospel of Luke: “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them” (Luke 2:20).
But with Mary, it is very different. Instead of going out to preach the gospel, as do the shepherds, Mary is quiet, contemplative, and reflective. She ponders all these things in her heart. Her actions represent a key theme in this gospel: reflection, thought, and the development of a deeply spiritual understanding.
Simeon and Anna
20. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, as it was spoken to them.
21. And when eight days were fulfilled for the circumcising of the little Child, His name was called Jesus, which He was called by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.
22. And when the days of her purification were fulfilled, according to the Law of Moses, they brought Him up to Jerusalem, to present [Him] to the Lord,
23. Even as it is written in the Law of the Lord, that every male opening the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;
24. And to give the sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, A pair of turtle doves, or two young doves.
25. And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name [was] Simeon; and this man [was] just and circumspect, waiting for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him.
26. And a response was made to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.
27. And he came by the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents were bringing in the little Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law,
28. He even received Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said,
29. “Now Thou sendest Thy servant away in peace, O Lord, according to Thy saying;
30. “For my eyes have seen Thy salvation,
31. “Which Thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples;
32. “A light for a revelation for the nations, and the glory of Thy people Israel.”
33. And Joseph and His mother marveled at the things which were spoken concerning Him.
34. And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this [Child] is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be spoken against.
35. “And also a sword shall pass through thine own soul, that the reasonings of many hearts may be revealed.”
36. And there was Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher; she was advanced in many days, having lived with a husband seven years from her virginity;
37. And she [was] a widow of about eighty-four years, who stood not back from the temple, serving [God] with fasting and prayers night and day.
38. And she, standing by at the hour itself, confessed the Lord, and spoke of Him to all those that waited for redemption in Jerusalem.
39. And when they had finished all things according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.
As we have pointed out, the central theme of Luke is the development of the understanding. In keeping with this theme, it is appropriate that the next scene takes place in the temple. This time the occasion is the ritual of purification which normally took place forty days after a birth. It is here, where an old man named Simeon first encounters the Child Jesus. As we read the description of Simeon’s experience, we note how often the story focuses on his “sight” and on what he “sees.” We read that “it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seenthe Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26). And when Simeon comes into the temple, he takes the Child up in his arms and says, “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to your Word. For my eyes have seenYour salvation” (Luke 2:29-30).
Just as Zacharias had prophesied about “a light” that would shine in the darkness,(Luke 1:79), just as the shepherds beheld a great light — the “glory of the Lord” — shining upon them, the true Source of that light is now shining upon Simeon as he gazes upon the face of the Child. Deeply inspired, Simeon continues his prophecy: “My eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared for all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32).
Turning to Mary, Simeon says, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be spoken against (yes, a sword shall pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:35).
Simeon’s words are full of prophecy. There is a power that enables each of us to live according to the truth we know. And those who receive this power shall “rise,” while those who reject it shall “fall.” It is exactly as Simeon says: “Behold this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel.”
Because none of us is perfect, we will all undergo times of doubt and times of trial. There will be times when we feel the “piercing of the sword.” Even Mary would not be exempt. She would witness the horror of her own Son’s crucifixion, and feel a mother’s pain and anguish. Indeed, as Simeon had told her, “a sword shall pierce through your own soul also.”
It’s part of the journey. While our suffering might not be as great as Mary’s when she stood near the cross, nor as grievous as Jesus’ as He was crucified, there will be times when we too will experience sorrow, loss, and grief—times that may be so painful that it will feel as though a sword has pierced through our own soul. But these times are not to be avoided or feared. They can instead be opportunities to renew our faith, confirm our belief in God, and resolve to go forward. These are the times when our most cherished values will be challenged, and our deepest thoughts will be made manifest. These times and these trials are allowed to come into our lives so that our true nature may be exposed and “the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
But no matter how desperate our situation, or how grievous our trials, there is still a quiet place in our hearts that waits patiently for God. This faith is represented by Anna the prophetess, who, like Simeon, is led to the temple at that very moment. After a seven-year marriage, she remained as a widow for many years. Now, at the age of eighty-four, she has never departed from the temple. Instead, she has chosen to remain faithful, “serving God with fasting and prayers night and day” (Luke 2:37).
It is noteworthy that both Simeon and Anna were drawn to the temple presentation at the very same time. Together they represent the essential spiritual affections—the affection for truth (Simeon) and the affection for goodness (Anna), which are necessary for “the performance of all things according to the law of the Lord” (Luke 2:39). Whenever these two qualities combine in us, we know we are in the presence of God, that the Holy Spirit is upon us, and that our eyes have seen His salvation. 4
This is not a one-time experience. It is an experience which continues to grow within us, an experience which becomes stronger over time. As it is written, “And the Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him” (Luke 2:39).
In the Temple with the Scholars
40. And the little Child grew, and became strong in Spirit, filled full with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.
41. And His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the festival of the Passover.
42. And when He was twelve years [old], they went to Jerusalem according to the custom of the festival.
43. And having finished the days, as they returned, the Boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, and Joseph and His mother knew [it] not.
44. But supposing Him to be among those on the way with [them], they went a day’s journey, and sought Him among [their] kinsfolk and acquaintances;
45. And finding Him not, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking Him.
46. And it came to pass, after three days, that they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both hearing them, and asking them questions.
47. And all that heard Him were amazed at His understanding and answers.
48. And seeing Him they wondered; and His mother said to Him, “Child, why hast Thou done this to us? Behold, Thy father and I have sought Thee, grieving.”
49. And He said to them, “Why [is it] that you have sought Me? Knew you not that I must be in what [is] My Father’s?”
50. And they understood not the saying which He spoke to them.
51. And He came down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and His mother kept all these sayings in her heart.
52. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in age, and in grace with God and men.
As the narrative continues, the language of scripture reflects the gradual development of Jesus from the “Babe” (Luke 2:12), to the “Child Jesus” (Luke 2:27) to the “Boy Jesus” (Luke 2:43). In the next episode, we discover that the “Boy Jesus” is now twelve years old. His parents have taken Him to the temple at Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of the Passover: “And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast” (Luke 2:42).
But when Joseph and Mary departed, and were already on their way back home, they discovered that Jesus was not with them. In fact they had already gone a whole day’s journey before they realized that Jesus was missing. Most likely, they had been traveling with many other people and had therefore assumed that Jesus was somewhere among them. But after inquiring among their traveling companions, and still not finding Him, they returned to Jerusalem. “And so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46).
Jesus is “in the temple.” He is listening to the learned men and asking them questions. The theme of the understanding, its growth and development, continues: “And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers” (Luke 2:47).
When Joseph and Mary return to Jerusalem and find Jesus tarrying in the temple, Mary says, “Son, why have you done this to us?” She then continues, with another reference to sight: “Look,” she says. “Your father and I have sought You anxiously” (Luke 2:48). Jesus replies with words that reveal His true identity: “Why is it that you sought Me?” says Jesus. “Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49). As the episode comes to its conclusion, Jesus returns to Nazareth with his parents, and is obedient to them, but “His mother kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51). Jesus knew that it was altogether fitting and proper to obey the commandment, “Honor your father and mother.” But He also knew that His higher duty was to honor His Father in heaven.
This is why Jesus said, “I must be about My Father’s business.” His parents, however, “did not understand the statement which He spoke to them” (Luke 2:50).
Even though His words must have been confusing to them, Mary continued to ponder their meaning. It is interesting to recall that Mary had a similar response after the visit of the shepherds. There we read that “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). In both cases, Mary’s response becomes emblematic of that deeper response to Jesus’ words that we are each called to make. It is a calling that invites us to ponder, reflect, and meditate on the meaning and significance of Jesus’ words in our own lives.
It should also be noted that apart from the birth in the stable and the appearance of the angels to the shepherds, the temple remains the focal point of most of the episodes in these first two chapters. Luke begins with Zacharias in the temple. Then, in chapter two, the Child Jesus is presented in the temple and Simeon prophesies in the temple. Then there is Anna “who did not depart from the temple but served God with fasting and prayers night and day.” And now, at the end of this second chapter, when it was time to leave the temple, we read that Jesus did not want to leave the temple, Jesus did not want to go. Instead, He chose to remain in the temple where He could, as He put it, “Be about My Father’s business.”
When we reflect on Zacharias’ prayers in the temple, when we consider Mary’s role as the pondering, thoughtful mother, and when we think of Jesus, even as a young child, sitting in the temple, listening to the law, and asking questions, we cannot help but wonder about these references to a contemplative, prayerful, truth-seeking, life — devoted to the development of the understanding. The emphasis is upon the contemplative aspect of our lives, a commitment to prayer, and a willingness to “ponder in our heart” all the things of God. In this stage of our spiritual development, our focus is on learning and understanding the Word of God. Like Jesus, we must be “about our Father’s business.”