Thursday, 24 December 2015

Why I Won't be Singing 'Away in a Manger' this Christmas

There are so many carols I look forward to singing as we approach Christmas. In Advent, I love O Come, O Come Emmanuel, with its sense of longing and expectation, and during the Christmas period itself, I adore the poetry of It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, and the combination of music and lyrics of O Holy Night never fails to lift my mind toward heaven and the wonder of the incarnation.

There’s one carol, though, that, if I never sung nor heard again, I would, much like its protagonist, not be shedding any tears. I hate, with a passion unbecoming to this season of goodwill, Away in a Manger.

There. I’ve said it. I’m sorry if it’s your favourite carol. If it is, you might want to stop reading here so I don’t spoil it for you permanently. Close the internet window and write me off as a grumpy little man…

A nativity scene, to give you a pause so you can close the page without reading the rest of the blog.

Still with me? Great! Let me elaborate then! I do actually have good reason for my dislike of this carol, and it’s not just that it’s a children’s song that we continue to sing well into adulthood (in fact, there are many good hymns and carols that fit this description that I enjoy singing in church).

My main problem with this carol is the line I alluded to earlier – “Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”. This line, that we’ve most likely all sung since our childhood, has been instrumental in forming our image of the Christ child. Wasn’t he quiet? Wasn’t he the ideal baby? From another carol – “Christian children all must be mild, obedient, good as he”.

This baby could never have caused any issues for his parents. There’s no way they were kept up half the night and well into the next morning by his screaming. Can you imagine? The very thought of Joseph and Mary snapping at each other because their baby just won’t sleep, or won’t eat, or won’t stop crying.

That’s the thing, though, isn’t it? Christ came to earth, born in the dirt of a stable, and born as a human baby. Not a pretend baby, or a TV version with all the bits where he screamed or cried on the cutting room floor. Like us, he kept his parents awake. He needed the equivalent of his first century nappy changing, and probably caused his parents to gag in the process. He caused his parents worry – was he eating enough, or too much? Why won’t he sleep? How can we stop him crying?

This carol has given us all, inside and outside of the Church, an image of a Jesus who is only God. There’s no room for a human baby away in that manger; only a perfect, divine being. That isn’t the Jesus we believe in. Christ was born fully God and fully man. He screamed. He teethed. He cried. He is God, but he was like us.

Instead then, I’ll be singing another carol; still a simple one for children, but one that acknowledges Jesus humanity in that manger – a lullaby to the Christ child called The Rocking Carol:

We will rock you, rock you, rock you.
We will serve you all we can, darling, darling, little man

This piece was written for my readership course last year. We were asked to write a magazine article on a Christmas carol and relate it to the doctrine of Christ's divinty. Away in a Manger has always struck me as a carol that is somewhat docetic... this article deals with my objections to it. In my commentary, I talked about both Docetism and Ebionism and the orthodox paradox of the incarnation.

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