Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Away in a Manger

Twelve Songs of Christmas
Song #2 -- Away in a Manger

I have always had a love/hate relationship with the song "Away in a Manger."  I love the melody.  I love the peacefulness of the song.  Mostly I love that everybody knows it, and if someone begins singing the song during the Christmas season, everybody else will join in.  All Christmas carols seem to bring a sense of community, and this song is no different.

What has always bothered me is the line "Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes."  I've been around babies.  They cry.  All of them.  Find me one baby who does not cry.  You can't, because they all do it.

You might say, "But it's cute. It's peaceful. It's nice to imagine Jesus that way."  It may be cute, but it's lies.  I have two children.  They cry.  They cried the moment they were born, and they cried on and off for the entire time they were babies.

I brought this up during youth group when I was in high school.  My youth leaders responded, "No, Jesus didn't cry.  Jesus wouldn't have had anything to cry about.  He was God.  What would he have to cry about?"
Well, for one, he used to be in a warm, comfortable womb, and now he's lying in a manger.
For another, he's a baby, and babies cry.

As it turns out, I'm not the only one for whom this lyric was problematic.  At the 1999 Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church, and Culture, Cynthia L. Rigby said:
Think about Christmastime, when we sing in "Away in a Manger" these words: "...the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes." No crying? Why do we say he doesn't cry? Perhaps because we know he is God, and God can't cry. On some level, we tend to reason to ourselves that, if Jesus is God, the whole baby thing must be kind of a disguise. He must have been not just an ordinary baby. . . he must have been a "superbaby." If we really believed in the incarnation, believing that Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine, we would instead sing: "The little Lord Jesus, much crying he makes."

You could argue that the song is merely talking about the night Jesus was born.  Sure, it is possible that Jesus did not cry on the night he was born. However, neither Matthew or Luke reference this.

You might think that I am examining this song too closely.  However, churches around the world sing this song each and every year, and I think it's important to know what exactly we are singing when we recite these words.  So let us take a minute or two to reflect on this beloved song.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head,
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

Verse one is not terribly problematic.  Jesus was in a manger.  There was no guest room available for him.  He probably did lay down; quite possibly on hay.  Moving on.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.

The cows loudly moo and wake up the baby, but he doesn't cry.  That must be in the forgotten fifth gospel.

I love you, Lord Jesus; look down from the sky,
And stay by my side until morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask you to stay
Close by me for ever, and love me, I pray.

Midway through verse two and on into verse three, the song suddenly turns into a prayer that Jesus will guide us as we navigate life here on earth. 

Bless all the dear children in your tender care,
And fit us for heaven, to live with you there.

The song concludes with a call for Christ to bless all of his children, and a prayer that God will make us people who fit with the kingdom that God is preparing; a kingdom made up of every tribe, tongue, and nation.

If we examine this song as a prayer, it contains many elements in line with how Jesus taught his followers to pray.

This, then, is how you should pray:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one (Matthew 6:9-13).
In this prayer, Jesus says that prayer should include
1. awe at God's awesome power,
2. submission to God's kingdom and will,
3. asking for God's help throughout our daily lives,
4. repentance, and 
5. forgiveness for others.
Similarly, Away in a Manger
1. praises God for the Christ that's been born (okay, the song simply describes the baby and the manger, but it's assumed that the song writer is thankful for this baby),
2. asks God for help and guidance in life,
3. asks for blessing for all peoples of the world, and
4. asks God to make us people who are fit for heaven
Looked at as a whole, Away in a Manger is a great song of praise to the God who came into the world as a baby, and continues to guide and mold us as we navigate this life today.  I will never be at peace with the image of a baby Jesus who never cries (BABIES CRY!).  However, the Jesus who continues to live today as Lord and Savior is truly worth worshipping.

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