Almost a lullaby, "Away in a Manger" rings in the ears of virtually every western ear on the planet. Sung or heard since early childhood, the song features on just about any Christmas album that wants to be taken seriously and continue to sell long after its first release. In October of 1994 while traveling in Israel with friends the little town of Bethlehem (remember that little tune, too?) was not restricted from travel and Manger Square in the heart of the city was our destination of the day.
The drive down was as close to an "extreme" experience as I had yet had in my young life to that point. We were never in any danger, the car performed solidly, there were no highwaymen waiting around blind corners to attack us or spontaneous gun battles ringing out from the surrounding hills. This was simply a matter of finding our way through the Occupied West Bank with a rental company road map and praying that the road signs would be in both English and Hebrew. GPS technology was not yet available to the masses and there remained a charged air throughout the land because of a sniper attack two days before in the capital.
Mary and Joseph were traveling and needed a place to rest. There was no room at the inn but space was provided in the manger out behind the building. Here the Son of God was born so the story goes. Before that, Bethlehem was the City of David and the last resting place of Rachel. Today the manger of Jesus is a popular tourist attraction as evidenced by all of the tour buses lined up in the square turned parking. After securing the car and paying our "nominal entry fee" in to the Church of the Nativity we headed pretty much on a beeline to the main attraction in the Grotto of the Nativity below.
One basilica becomes another very quickly when on a tour of holy attractions, either in Rome or around Israel. The nave, the apse, transept and rose windows are all in the usual places, designed to simultaneously uplift and intimidate. Yea, yea, nice, hurry up and take the picture, we need to get downstairs. Directly below the altar is the Grotto of the Nativity, legendary birthplace of Jesus Christ, the most powerful site we had thus far seen on our Israeli holiday.
We entered the grotto and were immediately faced with a dilemma as profound as any religious conflict in existence. There are two mangers. Facing each other at a slight angle and hardly ten feet apart, one is elaborately decorated, almost gaudy in its trappings of velvet, incense lanterns, a silver star marking the place of birth and the marble casing surrounding the whole affair. It could have been a fireplace in a previous life. The other is far plainer to look at and supposedly not the place of birth but merely where the Baby Jesus was laid in swaddling clothes to be presented to well wishers and the three wise men.
Please. There is (was) only one manger. It was in back of a roadside motel and served as the shelter for various and sundry livestock of the time. Joseph put his head here, Mary rested her weary body there, Jesus was born here and fresh hay was on the other side, already.
And none of it took place in the basement of a basilica!