When the infant Jesus was born, his mother Mary laid him in a manger (Lk 2:7). The word “manger” comes from the Latin word munducare which means “to eat.” A manger or crib is a wooden or stone feeding trough or food box that holds hay for larger farm animals like cattle, horses, and donkeys. Mangers were located wherever livestock were kept, places like stables, corrals, or caves. Farmers were sure to keep their mangers well-supplied with fodder at all times so the animals would never go hungry. The cattle can walk up to a manger at any time, and then spend long, leisure hours chomping away, chewing and slowly re-chewing their cud.
When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem there was no room for them at the inn, so they were forced to find lodging elsewhere where animals were staying. When Jesus was born, Mary would not have wanted to lay her infant on the hard, cold, stone floor. Instead, she had to make due with what was available and the manger proved to be a convenient alternative: the hay was soft, the box was up and off the ground, and the sides tall enough to keep her child safely inside.
Once laid there, an angel told the shepherds that they would find their newborn Messiah and Lord “lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12). They went in haste and found the child in the feeding trough and they feasted their eyes on him (Lk 2:16).
Jesus was not laid in a manger by accident. It is a major spiritual symbol. Animals go to the manger for physical food, but with Jesus lying on the hay, we can go to the manger for spiritual food. Jesus has an infinite storehouse of nourishment available, and we can approach him any time and never go hungry. Jesus feeds us with Word and Sacrament, his gospel and the Eucharist. Jesus wants us to devour his word (Jer 15:16; Ez 3:1; Rev 10:9-10), chew on it, slowly ruminate on its meaning, swallow and digest it, and make it part of the fabric of our being. Jesus’ Word is like no other food, it has the power to save our souls (Jas 1:21). Not only that, the infant in the feeding trough is the Bread of Life (Jn 6:35), the true bread come down from heaven, and whoever eats this bread will live forever (Jn 6:51). If a person wants to be spiritually well-fed, it is important to read Scripture and receive the Eucharist often.
The manger is a momentous sign that Jesus is sustenance for us. The shepherds feasted first. Now it is our turn. Jesus born on the first Christmas is food for our souls.