Conception and childbirth are among the incredible activities that happen in the human body. Tiny cells meet and begin the process of development from an embryo into a fetus that eventually grows into a baby at birth. Imagine the scenario; all of us started our journey into life as tiny cells that transmuted into what we are now.
Let us look at some statistics. More than 355,000 babies are born daily around the world. Among these, there is an estimate of about 250 new lives every minute around the world. There is a flip side. World Health Organization reports that globally about one million babies die within 24 hours of birth. Furthermore, the UN inter-agency report (2017) shows that there is about 211 maternal death for every 100,000 live births globally.
Generally, there are various narratives for various births. No matter how would-be parents prepare, childbirths do not often go as planned. There are stories of women who had their babies on the road, malls, hospital hallways, even in flights, cruise ships, and other odd places; I have not, however, heard about childbirth in a cemetery; have you?
Our reflection started with the preceding elucidations to help us put the narrative of the conception and birth of our Lord Jesus Christ into our normal human context so that we can locate the nature and character of the divine orchestration that makes it amazing.
Before the birth of Jesus Christ, his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, conceived through a different route never recorded in human history until then. Joseph was waiting for Mary to return from her three months visit to her cousin Elizabeth only to learn, upon her return, that she was already pregnant. Joseph wanted to dismiss Mary quietly, but he was asked to suspend action because the Holy Spirit was responsible for her pregnancy (see Matthew 1:18-24).
Bethlehem and the Manger
The time Mary was due to have her child was the same period the ruling government called for a census of the people. Joseph had to travel to his original home, that is Bethlehem in Judea with Mary. On their arrival at night, Mary went into labor as the child was fast coming. They searched for a place to stay but there was no room in the guest house, and nobody wanted to share the agony of an expecting mother.
Fast-forwarding help eventually came from an animal’s house where a Manger was offered to them as a cradle to hold the child after Mary’s delivery with the assistance of Joseph, her ever-supportive husband. Let us examine the high points connected with Bethlehem and the Manger.
The name Bethlehem is a combination of two Hebrew words; Beth, which means house and lehem which means bread. So, Bethlehem means house of bread. Every person or thing connected to the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ had a significance. Bethlehem as a birthplace of our Lord Jesus Christ, was an oracle of the prophet Micha (5:2) seven hundred years earlier:
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
One could still ask the question, why the town of Bethlehem and not any of the other towns in Judah? Like we pointed earlier, Bethlehem means house of bread, and our Lord would in the course of teachings, declare that he is the bread of life (John 6:36). In another place, he says more expansively:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. (John 6:51).
From the references we have above, it is clear to us that God chose Bethlehem to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, who is the bread of life coming down from heaven. This description reminds us of the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, which is the summit of the Church’s life and ministry and one of the two great gifts we have received from God, the other being the Holy Spirit.
The Manger is also an essential accessory in the nativity narrative. Often the pictures of the nativity scenes around us look very magnificent and attractive. However, the real place of the birth of Jesus Christ was far from being what we see in pictures. First, it was an animal barn and you can imagine how fresh the air could be.
A manger is a wooden feeding trough for animals. And the word manger is traceable to the French manger, Italian mangiare or Latin manducare which means to eat. So far, any active mind may begin to make a connection between Bethlehem and Manger, in other words, between the house of bread and eating. Jesus Christ, the new-born King, is the bread of life and whoever eats him would have everlasting life.
Another relevance we can see from the manger is that it is a lowly place. When kings are born, they stay in royal cradles, but the eternal King is found wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
Part of the oracle of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 9:2-7), says, “for a child is born to us, a son is given us…They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace”. One would expect that the child in this prophecy would be born in one of the most outstanding palaces in the world, but God’s thoughts and ways are always different (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Remember that in the message of the nativity angel to the shepherds who were keeping watch that night, the manger would be a sign for them about the Savior. Here, we see the manger as a sign of humility on the part of the Great One born in our midst. St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians makes it more evident that our Lord Jesus Christ, though in the form of God, did not count his equality with God but humbled himself taking the form of a slave”. (Philippians 2:6-8).
Furthermore, the wooden manger reminds us of the wood of the cross. At birth, our Lord Jesus Christ was laid on the wooden manger and at death, he would be laid on the wooden cross. We know that wood comes from a tree, and the first sin of disobedience happened at the tree in the middle of the garden (Genesis 2:9; 3:3). The manger stands as a sign pointing to the cross where the debt of our sin would be paid finally and in full (John 19:30). The manger stands between the tree in the middle of the garden and the cross of Calvary.
As we gather around the nativity scene with the beautiful lights and relishing the sweet Christmas carol melodies, let us take some time to reflect on the resonance of some of the significant places, events, and actors surrounding the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, especially the ground meaning of Bethlehem and
Have a beautiful celebration, and have for yourself a Merry Christmas.