It happens every year. It’s the typo that I make most often at this season of the year and the one that I notice most in other church bulletins during Christmas time. Instead of Away in a Manger, I invariably type Away in a Manager! No matter whether I use a typewriter, a word processor or a computer, ‘manger’ turns into ‘manager.’ Even Spellcheck can’t catch it, since ‘manager’ is a word correctly spelled. I did it again this year as I put the midweek Advent bulletin together. Of course no one noticed it until we were to start the first service, even though the whole staff proofread it! They’re not at fault, mind you; it’s one of those invisible errors that never shows until it’s reproduced on hundreds and thousands of copies!
A principal told me that someone in the school had made the same mistake a year or two ago. The typo was printed in the school annual and an irate parent called to complain about the unfortunate error: ‘manager’ instead of ‘manger.’ Imagine! They thought a school should be above making such mistakes — and a Christian school at that!
But is it so unfortunate?
The safe bet is that the Sweet Little Child in Bethlehem’s manger is also the magnificent Manager of life and eternity. The evangelist St. John does more than suggest the possibility. He says, “The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and without Him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (
The truly intriguing aspect to me is to consider the Godhead in sacred conference long before there existed a universe, where Father, Son and Holy Spirit mapped their strategies and planned their tactics to rescue humanity from itself. We are fortunate, are we not, to have God-in-Christ as a benevolent, compassionate, caring Manager? It rings true every time we recite it: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life” (
The infant Moses was placed in a cradle of reeds and sent sailing on the Nile to prevent his death by Pharaoh. The Baby Jesus was put in a manger to set sail for life and to manage death’s conquest by conquering a more insidious ruler, Satan.
Away in that manger long ago, on that starlit night when the angels flooded the Judean sky with song, was born more than the Jesus of the cradle; there was born the Christ of the Cross. His plan was to do more than invade our world and experience our lives; He was to rescue us, to redeem us, to save us eternally, to atone for our sins. You see, Jesus knew there would be more than a birthday to commemorate; He knew there would be a resurrection day as well.
Thirty-two years ago Dag Hammarskjold observed, “How proper it is that Christmas should follow Advent. For him who looks toward the future, the manger is situated on Golgotha, and the cross has already been raised in Bethlehem.”1 That’s the story of the Divine Manager. Christmas without Easter is romance without a kiss, joy without a reason, extravagance without purpose. Thus we cannot truly celebrate Christmas if there is no dealing with Easter, for God came in Christ to manage our deliverance, to reconcile the world unto Himself (
Not to manipulate you and me, understand? Not to swindle us into some cockamamie idea. Nor to entice us, like some wayward youngsters in the fashion of Pinocchio, into a carnival with a short run. He did not intend to shanghai a fallen race into the eternal kingdom, but to pay our debts, welcome us to follow Him, if we will, so that then we will delight in the warmth of God’s love forever. Thus, between the crib and the cross, Jesus preached to the eager crowds, healed the ailing, brought to life the dead, fed the hungry, and encouraged the downtrodden. And then He died for us; the Sweet Child of Christmas, now full grown, died for us. But just as we thrill to a surprise gift under the tree, so Jesus gave us a surprise gift greater than the memory of His torturous death. He mastered the grave and invites us to master it also. That takes more than a manger; it takes a truly Divine Manager.
We come to the altar to discover that within the cup and on the paten are more than wine and bread; there is this remarkable Manager, managing to give Himself in holy remembrance, managing to absolve us of our sins and give us the gift of forgiveness, managing to give us Himself in body broken and blood shed, so that we can manage our lives free of old guilt and absent of old tarnish. Jesus is here to be born in our hearts in a unique way that requires more than the Lord of the manger; here is the Lord who is a Manager and manages to bridge the separation between heaven and earth, the sinless and the sinful, reality and hope.
We are not to become God’s manager ourselves, but to permit this Divine Manager to lead us to the manger and then to the miracle of faith. Writes John Killinger, “Let’s not miss [Christmas] by being too busy, by overdoing, by trying to ‘manage’ its coming.”2 That is not to say we are to be delinquent in well-doing. Not at all. It is to say that Away in the Manager is more than a beautiful story, it is the guiding hand for life. Let Him lead you.
Christ manages best when He manages through sensitive followers. He will help you manage unemployment or economic reversals. He will enable you to manage career changes and marital struggles and family aches. He does not manage us as hand puppets or marionettes, but as intelligent souls who are receptive to Divine encouragment — who listen for answers, as well as question Him in prayer. Whatever your dilemma, He will enable you to manage it, if you are open to His management of life and eternity, of sin and sacrifice.
The story is told of a prominent Judean businessman who dealt in carved and sculptured stone. He imported marble and had a shop to polish granite so that it gleamed like a windless lake. He was fortunate to receive a contract from Herod the Great, the Semitic king of Israel and puppet of the Romans, to furnish much of the decorative stone to adorn his lavish new castle being built seven miles southeast of Bethlehem. It was to be Herod’s tomb as well as a fortress. In 37 B.C., when Herod was still quite young and his rule new, he began a building frenzy across Israel. The Herodion was only one of his many lavish projects, nearly all of them constructed of rich Judean stone.
Stone, of which there is a wealth in Israel, was selected carefully. The capitals and the columns were carved and polished near the quarries and then carted several miles over rutted roads to the mountaintop site of the castle. The businessman was delighted with his incredible success. He employed many stone masons, who chiseled elaborate symbols and geometric designs on the native stone, making spectacular columns, handsome capitals, and artful doorways and windows, balconies and balustrades. Always there was produced more capitals and columns than needed, so that if any were broken on the journey to the building site or were damaged in construction there would be immediate replacements.
One mason was a particularly gifted sculptor. He knew his work would adorn the palace of a king so he worked with exceptional grace. It took him long weeks to produce the capital of a column that would stand in the most prominent place in the castle. It was one of the most beautiful pieces of sculpture ever made in that region, and would support a major marble column imported from Egypt. The businessman marveled at the capital’s precision. Other workmen were awed by its smooth lines and beautiful decorations. The sculptor himself was proud of his artistry. And so were the workmen who carefully put it aside to load in the next shipment from the quarry to the castle. Except that when it was time to take it to the Herodion, they loaded the wrong capital. Inadvertently they loaded the practice piece on which the sculptor had chiseled his initial designs, trying his patterns and testing his techniques. It too was beautiful, but rough, unfinished. The mason was dismayed to discover it was taken and the superior capital left behind. The businessman was too caught up in other projects to be concerned about that one capital, no matter how prominent a spot it was to have. Business was business and the mistake would never be noticed, he reasoned.
“My greatest work is for nothing,” mourned the Judean stone mason. “These modern men, who work too fast and make too many mistakes, have insulted a king and rejected great art for the sake of expediency,” he droned. “But, alas, the king will never know it, nor the world recognize my skill. It was meant for a king, intended for a palace, meant to support a castle; now it will only crumble into dust in this neglected quarry,” he whispered to himself.
As capitals often are hollowed-out inside to fit together with other stonework to meet the engineering requirements for strength, so this capital was hollow to the depth of eight or nine inches. Abandoned when the quarry shut down and the construction was concluded, it sat forlornly in a sunlit corner of the quarry, not far from Bethlehem.
Spotting the beautiful capital, a shepherd thought not of royal palaces and regal castles. He was too practical. He turned it into a watering trough for his flocks of sheep and goats, but it was too high for the lambs and the little kids. He thought to himself that it was tall enough so that it would be useful for feeding cattle or donkeys, camels or horses. This he told his master, a young man who had just opened a caravansary — an inn for travelers with caravans. He spent a week moving the huge stone capital onto a cart, and then with the help of his donkey maneuvered it into his stable inside the walls of Bethlehem.
“What a handsome piece to adorn this barren barn,” exclaimed the owner to his wife. It was the right height for their donkey, and the old milk cow felt a special ease in eating from it. Even over time the handsome capital lost none of its beauty, albeit it no longer had its significance — that is, until that night the angels sang. The crowded inn provided no room for a young couple expecting their first child. Yet the innkeeper’s stableboy made the barn comfortable with fresh straw and scrubbed the old capital clean so that it could be made into a temporary crib. Then it was that this piece of stonework truly became the property of a king, the King! Jesus made the stable into a palace and this capital, once ignored and forgotten, found its place as the manger of the Messiah, and the support of more than a royal roof — it held God’s Royal Son.
To those who were present, it is said the stone seemed to sigh and sing. It may only have been the rustling of the swaddling pads against the stone’s ornamentation, or the warmth of the nearby fire resounding against the capital that glowed like gold in its light, but the legend persists that the manger seemed to sweetly, softly sing the Baby Jesus to sleep.
Some people want to believe the manger was made of wood, but wood was too precious in that region to be used in such a way. Stone was plentiful and easily cut and carved and made into aqueducts and fortresses, town walls and houses, capitals for columns and mangers for cattle and donkeys, camels and horses. Having visited Israel six times, I can attest to seeing more stone mangers than wooden ones; in fact, I’ve never seen a wooden one there. Thus it was that the One whom Paul would call the “spiritual Rock,” Jesus the Christ, found comfort in such a stone manger bed (
The Lord would later say to Peter of his faith, “On this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” It is possible He recalled the stone capital that protected Him from chilly winds and trampling feet on that Christmas night the shepherds came breathlessly into the stable (
Thus, when the error creeps up again — of ‘manager’ instead of ‘manger’ — and it will for centuries ahead, enough evidence exists in the Bible and life to prove it is no mistake, but the holy purpose for which Jesus came: to manage death with life, and sin with forgiveness, and hate with love. For if a manger, a feedbox, can become so important to this beginning story of Jesus’ mission on Earth as to be mentioned three times in Luke’s retelling of the event, is it not possible that we may learn something more about it now? Wood or stone, it’s the One sleeping there we have come to know as the bedrock of faith. While the cross was made of wood, the door over His tomb was Judean stone. He sent it wheeling away on Easter Day so that death could die and life would live forever. Thus it would be fitting that Christmas begins in a stone manger as it ended with a stone door pushed aside, and that both the beginning was in a cave and the ending too, so that we need never fear either the new starts in life or the old endings that must come.
It is because Away in a Manger was born that this marvelous Manager makes sense out of strange things and joy out of despair. Come, then, to this manger so that Christ can manage your sin with the power of His love and offer you in body and blood the best gift for your Christmas — Himself. Amen.
1. Egbert, Wilson O, quoted in The Gifts They Gave in Christmas, Vol. 52 (Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis; 1982), p. 31.
2. Killinger, John, Christmas Spoken Here (Nashville: Broadman, 1989), p. 27.