For the evangelist, more important is the description that follows: “she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn” (Lk 2:7). Obviously, wrapping a child in clothes is an ordinary maternal action towards a new born child. Luke’s main aim is not to describe the hardship and poverty of Mary and Joseph. Nor is he highlighting their rejection when he says that there was “no place for them in the inn” (Lk 2:7). He is not hinting at the insensitivity or inhospitable attitude of the innkeeper! (The word for ‘inn’, katalyma, can mean ‘house’, or ‘lodging’, or ‘room’, or ‘inn’). The symbolism that it evokes or alludes to by its Old Testament imagery is more important. In the Book of Wisdom (Wis 7:4-5) we find a description of the birth of the king Solomon in his own words: “I was nursed with care in swaddling clothes. For no king has had a different beginning of existence”. This allusion could mean that Jesus is wrapped in swaddling clothes as was king Solomon at his birth. It may thus suggest Jesus’ royal dignity as a Davidic king.
Still more important is the symbolism of the child “in the manger”. The term ‘manger’ occurs thrice in this episode (Lk 2:7, 12, 16). In Luke 2:12, the manger is given as sign to the shepherds: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger”. It is also significant that in the third reference to the sign in verse 16 there is no mention of swaddling clothes, but only the sign of the child in the manger. “And they … found the babe lying in a manger”. Two texts from the Old Testament are probably evoked here and they will clarify the symbolic meaning of “the child in the manger”. One of them is Isaiah 1:3: “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib (manger); but Israel does not know, my people do not understand”. In this passage God compares himself as the owner of Israel. He is also the source of her sustenance. ‘manger’ means a feeding trough for the animals. While the cattle (ox and ass) are able to know their owner and recognize the source of their sustenance in their master’s manger, Israel is presented as not having such knowledge with regard to her God, her owner and the source of sustenance. What the evangelist is trying to show is that the saying in Isaiah is no longer in effect. God’s complaint against an Israel which does not recognise him is no more true. For, indeed, the shepherds ‘find’ the child in a manger and recognise him as the Lord. They ‘find’ him in the manger, namely, as the source of their sustenance. The shepherds go ‘with haste’ to the manger soon after they receive the news (Lk 2:16). (In the popular presentation of the Christmas crib the presence of ox and ass is influenced by this Isaian text).
Another Old Testament text that might have influenced the Lukan symbolism is Jeremiah 14:8: “O thou hope of Israel, its saviour in time of trouble, why shouldst thou be like a stranger in the land, like a wayfarer who turns aside to tarry (in an inn – katalyma) for a night?” Jeremiah says that God passes by through the land of his people like a passing traveller: that he no longer visits his people. In other words, God does not stay with his own people but like a wayfarer lodges in an inn. For Luke, that there was no place in the inn means that now God no longer stays in the inn as a stranger. We have therefore to understand the meaning of the phrase “there was no place in the inn” as referring to god’s new way of presence to his people. We can say that now in the new era of salvation, the inn is not the place for God to stay. For he is God-with-us (Cf. Mt 1:23). The complaint of Jeremiah is no longer true. He is no longer like a foreign traveller who stays in an inn. The child in the manger therefore means, in Luke’s view, God’s new form of presence, and that presence as the source of sustenance of his people. In the light of the above the sign character of the swaddling clothes and the babe in the manger can be seen. The sign given by the angel is “you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:16). The sign is also to be seen as related to the message of the angels in Luke 2:11: “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ, the Lord”. The sign thus signifies in a very subtle way Jesus’ messianic royal role.