According to Luke, Mary lays her newborn child in a manger (2:7). While nativity scenes tend to represent this manger as a pristine, straw-filled crib, a manger was actually a feeding trough for animals like donkeys and oxen—a less-than-pristine place, indeed. Luke highlights the manger not only to underscore Jesus’ humble beginnings, but also to foreshadow the Last Supper, when the Messiah would perform a symbolic act in offering his own body as food for those who follow him. The manger serves as a prophetic object that presents Yeshua to the world and points to his salvific death for the salvation of that world.
Just after Jesus is born, Mary “wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger (φάτνη; phátne)” (2:7). When the angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds, God’s messenger says to them, ‘For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger (φάτνη; phátne)’” (2:12). In response to the angel, the shepherds declare, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger (φάτνη; phátne)” (2:15-16). Thus, Jesus’ manger plays a major role in Luke’s birth narrative: it is the first earthly location that Jesus encounters after leaving his mother’s embrace and it serves as a “sign” (σημεῖον; semeion) from God that the shepherds use to identify their Messiah.
Later in the Gospel, Jesus’ reference to a manger reveals its function as an animal feeding trough. Yeshua asks the head of a synagogue, “Does not each one of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger (φάτνη; phátne) and lead it away to water it?” (Lk 13:15). That Jesus is laid in this kind of a food receptacle at his birth is fitting, since he is born in Bethlehem (בית לחם; Beit Lechem) which, in Hebrew, means “House of Bread/Food.” Yet, the function of the manger also anticipates Jesus’ words at the Last Supper: “He took bread (ἄρτος; artos), and when he had given thanks, be broke it gave it to [the disciples], saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you” (Lk 22:19). The infant Jesus lays in a feeding trough, and this imagery comes full circle when he offers food that represents his own body. In this way, Luke bookends the Gospel with allusions to Jesus as “food” that symbolizes the good tidings of salvation for all who partake in him.