Away in a Feeding Trough
No one this Christmas, I suggest, would be willing to sing, “Away in a feeding trough.” “Way too crude, coarse, and inelegant,” you might say. But Luke would sing it for sure. Crude and coarse is his precise message. The traditional wording, “she laid him in a manger” masks humility and the smells of Jesus’ birth.
“Manger” is a correct but unappreciated translation of φάτνῃ, an animal’s feeding trough. The prophet Isaiah uses the same exact word but brings the crudeness of Jesus’ first crib into focus.
“The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s feeding trough (φάτνῃ), but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Isaiah 1:3
Jesus in a Donkey Dish
I’m familiar with donkeys from my third-world upbringing. Donkeys may not know a lot; but they do know their own feeding trough.
Jesus was born in crude quarters relegated for donkeys and then placed in their feeding dish. In today’s terminology, Jesus was born in a barn and placed in a donkey dish, probably made of stone (see the picture of a stone manger I observed in Israel). And while it may offend white, middle-class sensibilities, where we find livestock we also find swarms of flies, rats, waste, and unpleasant odors. Jesus is Lord among the flies. Jesus’ first nursery wouldn’t make a feature in Southern Living, and it didn’t smell like Chanel No.5.
Was this a mistake for an infant king to be placed in a stinky barn? Who was to blame for this crude nursery? The heartless innkeeper?
Well, there was no heartless innkeeper because there was no inn. The search for a room by Joseph and Mary and rejection by a heartless innkeeper is pure fiction. Despite misleading lyrics of Christmas songs by musicians who invent a frantic but fruitless hunt for accommodations, Joseph and Mary are not rejected heroes. In the matter of God’s humble self-disclosure, Scripture refuses to feed our lust for celebrity worship. God is the only hero of Luke 2:1-20. After all the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest,” not, “Glory to Joseph and Mary.” He planned for Jesus’ birth in a smelly, fly-filled barn.
The guestroom for visitors was naturally overcrowded during a season for a world-wide census. Traveling upward in elevation, 90 miles from the north (from Nazareth) with a pregnant woman in tow, would naturally put Joseph and Mary in last place on the list for accommodations. By the time they arrived on foot in the south, all that was left for Joseph and Mary was the area where livestock were kept at night.
But the crude lodging was no mistake. The barnyard birth was part of God’s plan of self-disclosure to us. God purposely revealed Himself to humanity with a humble approach. It wasn’t the imaginary innkeeper’s fault.
Humility and Credibility
Luke is attempting to persuade us that the story of the Savior Jesus is credible and legit (Luke 1:1-4). The story of how God introduces Himself to us is part of Luke’s strategy of credibility. A humble God is a credible Lord. A humble Savior is a believable Savior. Jesus’ newborn body was placed in a stone manger by Joseph and Mary. His dead body was also placed in a stone tomb by another Joseph (Luke 23:50-54). Humble in birth and in death. God discloses the message of Jesus in humility.
A Humble God is A Credible God
A proud deity would introduce Himself on a well-lit stage with show-business glitz, complete with multiple seats for an audience of fans. Desired applause would surely follow, and then the CD sales would begin. But a humble God introduces Himself to us in a barn and laid in a hay-filled trough. No audience or applause, except for the braying of donkeys; instead, in silence, we all kneel in worship. A humble God is a credible God, a God worthy of our worship and trust.
Luke is accenting the humble condition of Jesus’ birthplace. Despite being called the Son of the Most High with claim to King David’s throne (Luke 1:33), despite being the living embodiment of the Lord God of Israel (Luke 1:43), King Jesus, ironically, was born in a stinking barn and placed in an animal’s dish for a crib. His infant head rests where donkeys have fed. Astonishing, yes, but humble and, therefore, very credible.
Laid in a Dog Dish
I visited the Dodge Mansion in Pontiac, Michigan, and discovered an entire wing of the mansion dedicated to one child, replete with its own kitchen. Predictable.
Fairlane, Henry Ford’s mansion in Dearborn, Michigan, has an entire section and kitchen dedicated exclusively to the culinary care of Edsel, Henry and Clara’s first-born son. Predictable.
The wealthy ensure that their children enjoy luxurious care. The barn built for Henry Ford’s herd of cattle was located a long way off from Edsel’s nursery, free from flies and waste. Predictable.
But Jesus, Israel’s infant King, heir to an eternal throne, was laid in a donkey trough, smack in the middle of a fly-infested, smelly barn. God introduces Himself to us amidst the most crude surroundings. Unpredictable, but credible.
“Who is like the LORD our God, the One who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth?” Psalm 113:6
How undramatic and nontheatrical. No grandstanding, staging, lights, or glitz. No celebrities on a stage, parades, smoke machines, and no “Hail-to-the Chief” by a brass band. How non-entertaining, non-self-promoting; how unpretentious, but how very credible, how very legit, and how very sure we can be that the story of Jesus the Savior is worth considering. A humble Lord is a credible Savior.
Clash between Christ and Christians
Did you notice who’s missing from Luke’s smelly barnyard scene? Thankfully absent are human kings, governors, priests, VIP’s, Christian celebrities, pop-stars, and musicians with their staged, pretentious, attention-getting ways. They’re all missing-in-action from Luke’s barnyard picture. Predictable. Jesus’ lowliness and humility clash with their staged, self-promoting disclosure.
It is not a coincidence that the apostle Paul attempted to stave off church division in the Philippian church—due to a proud, over-inflated opinion of themselves—by urging them to imitate the attitude of Jesus, who, though equal to God, humbled Himself (Philippians 2:5-12).
Bethlehem Saturday Night Live
Embarrassing, don’t you think, that Jesus’ own church adopts the self-promoting, cosmetic, show-business approach of pretentious Hollywood-staging? The dazzling light shows, smoke machines, attention-getting, entertaining, applause-seeking, peddling of musical wares, playing to the crowd, and creating a flamboyant, Bethlehem Saturday Night Live. Fans applaud their pompous, evangelical speaker and musical stars. Predictable, but not credible.
“Show-business Christianity will always have its followers.” W. W. Wiersbe
But God is not looking for applause or fans. He’s looking for believing followers. That’s why Luke’s portrait of Jesus is a picture of humility. Humility breeds credibility.
Away in a feeding trough might be a little rough to sing, but it is spot on; its message of God’s humble self-disclosure is credible and believable. It’s Luke’s message about Jesus.
Support the Feeding Trough Approach
Support women and men who serve in lowliness, without a stage or limelight, and in dark trenches. Connect with women and men who introduce Jesus in humble, quiet, self-effacing ways. Serve people who love the poor, the prisoners, the lowly, and the marginalized. Be unpredictable. Support credibility.
Identify with those who introduce the message of Jesus in word or song without pretension, without the show-business approach. Support women and men who disclose Jesus to low-income communities weekly—not those who play annually to white, middle-class concert junkies.
Affirm servants who offer their Jesus-services humbly, free of charge, and free from sensationalism. Adopt the feeding trough approach yourself. Share the good news of Jesus in humble ways. Trumpets are best left in the hands of angels. Gain credibility for the message of the humble Savior.
Subvert the Show-Business Approach
The church has profits, but not many prophets or prophetesses. Why not also, like John the Baptist, protest Christian celebrities, musicians, and church communities that promote the great god of entertainment. Agitate against those who disclose the message of Jesus as show-business hype on a stage. Speak up. Like prophets and prophetesses of Israel’s Scripture, expose the pretensions of Christian celebrities, teachers, Pastors, TV evangelists, vocalists and musicians who talk and sing Jesus-lite from showy concert platforms.
“I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.” Neil Postman
Cancel your subscription to their predictable phony-baloney. Delete them from your Instagram, Reddit, Google, Twitter, or Facebook feeds. Trash their shallow, show-business-Jesus musical junk. Send their holy hardware back to them in protest. Subvert the Christian establishment that perpetuates the predictable, feel-good, insulated version of a celebrity Jesus. Refuse to support or attend the Six-Flags-Over-Jesus approach by churches, bands, and musicians.
When is Your Next Barn Concert?
But attend just one more concert. In a moment of pause, stand up and audibly ask the vocalist how many barns, viz., low-income neighborhoods, churches, schools, or communities, he has introduced Jesus to over the last ten years, if ever. Suggest that if he holds a free concert in a low-income community, you’ll swat the flies for him. Ask how much money he made the previous year on the backs of hard-working, white, middle-class groupies in a safe, air-conditioned church building, free from flies, while singing about Jesus.
Barns and Non-Nobles
Ask him why his glitzy stage looks and sounds more like a strip-club setting—dazzling lights, smoke, poles, and snappy pictures on a screen—than a modest, or lowly donkey dish. Suggest that, next time, he might stay home in his insulated, Nashville, gated community or, instead, find a barn in the inner city. The barn could be the venue to which he might invite the poor, homeless, and the non-nobles to a free hot meal. His methodology and message of Jesus will finally gain a little credibility for the news of the infant born in a fly-filled barn and laid in a used donkey dish. Support Barns and Non-Nobles.
Support the Bethlehem Approach
Support the Bethlehem approach: Away in a feeding trough. Subvert the normative Christian strip-club approach to introducing Jesus.
Try singing, “Away in a feeding trough,” or “Away in a donkey dish” rather than the traditional way. Crude, coarse, and inelegant; yes, all that, but credible. Crude and coarse is Luke’s message us. A humble Lord is a credible Savior. Trust Him as your Savior and Lord today.
“Once in Royal David’s City
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her baby,
in a manger for his bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.
He came down to earth from heaven
Who is God and Lord of all,
And his shelter was a stable,
and his cradle was a stall:
With the poor and meek and lowly,
Lived on earth, our Savior holy.”
Thank you for reading.
 The word “inn” is a most unfortunate translation of φάτνῃ. The word means “guestroom.” He uses the exact same word in Lk. 22:11, a guest room, usually located on the 2nd floor. “Where is the guest room (φάτνῃ), where I may eat the Passover with my disciples? He will show you a large upper room, all furnished.” Lk. 22:11-12. There was no available space in the guest room, either belonging to friends or relatives. There is an “inn” mentioned in Luke’s Gospel, but it is found in the story of the Good Samaritan, a completely different term from the one used in Luke 2:7.
 Observe how much the state of humility occupies the lyrics of Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55.