Of Mangers... and Martyrs
By Taylor Burton-Edwards
The word manger almost breathes Christmas for many of us these days. It's not a word most of us ever use in any other context than the birth of Jesus.
And so we attach to mangers, perhaps, a whole host of warm, hopeful, sentimental feelings that bleed over from other associations we have formed with the many others that have bled into our imagined Christmas built up over years of living in our culture and our churches.
Mangers may evoke a bright star and shepherds abiding in a field, their night illumined by that star, angel choirs singing, and kings in their finest coming to bring strange gifts. Mangers may evoke snow, or at least a cold night, yet, also, the promise of warmth and security and safety ("the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay").
Of course, mangers aren't all that. They're feed bins, nothing more. Think some means to keep food for domesticated animals up off the ground high enough so they can more easily reach it and keep it from getting all over the place or getting mixed with what comes out of said animals rather than what's supposed to go into them.
Luke tells us, after Jesus was born and wrapped up in bands of cloth, he was placed in one of these feed bins. He doesn't say where this feed bin was. Perhaps it was near something more like a lean-to than the near-chalet structures nativity sets in churches or public displays have depicted. Perhaps it was just a random feed bin lying in some proximity to wherever it was Mary actually gave birth. We don't know where that was.
But we do know what mangers really are. Mangers are where food goes-- food for servant animals. And that's where Mary put the swaddled (but maybe not sleeping!) newborn Jesus.
Jesus in a feed bin, food for servant peoples.
There are no mangers in the painting above. We see a pack animal carrying Mary, but this time it's not to give birth and place her baby in a manger. And this time she and Joseph and the near-toddler Jesus are not arriving at their destination, but fleeing.
And this time they are surrounded, in oddly victorious festal array, by dead babies. Martyrs.
Yes, not just mangers, but martyrs are part of Christmas.
In fact, a greater part.
Christians remember the manger on one holy night of the twelve days of this season, The Eve of Christmas, December 24.
But we remember martyrs on two.
The word means "witnesses." Sometimes they are the bold witnesses to the name of Jesus Christ whose names we laud and revere to this day. Names like Stephen, deacon and "Protomartyr" (or "first martyr"), whom the church has commemorated in worship for centuries on December 26.
But sometimes, as in William Holman Hunt's painting, they are the nameless witnesses bearing testimony to the deadly obsession of spiritual forces of wickedness and evil powers, the kingdoms of this world. Christians commemorate the untold number of the unnamed infant boys slain through Herod's madness on December 28, a day we call "Feast of the Holy Innocents."
Jesus, spared the first Herod's madness, was not sanguine about the consequences of the kingdom of God drawing near in him. He was after all facing the madness of another Herod as his ministry began. "From the days of John the Baptist until now," he reminds us, "the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent laid siege to it" (Matthew 11:12).
And so they have since.
And so they still do.
Whether we know the martyrs' names, like Stephen, or will never know them, like the "holy innocents," we do know one thing.
They are not victims.
In Christ, they are victors.
Rachel weeps inconsolably. And we rightly weep with her every time the kingdoms of this world lay violent siege upon the kingdom of God.
We take time to weep each Christmas.
But not as those who are without hope.
Because we are people who have mangers and martyrs side by side each Christmas, this season solemnizing the mystery of Word-become-flesh, God-with-us.
Feedbins and bloody victims?
To the kingdoms of this world, probably so.
But to us...
Bread of heaven, and cup of salvation!