Away in a Manger
For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.
Over the years, "Away in a Manger" has been the source of considerable perplexity for me, though I've always felt fond of the song. When I was young, I learned the familiar melody that begins with a descending series of notes. But, after I had become fully comfortable with this melody, I heard another tune playing on the radio. How wrong! Somebody was messing around with one of my favorite carols, and I didn't like it. (I did not know that this other version was actually quite old and the preferred version for many churches.)
Another source of perplexity for me was the apparent inconsistency between a line in "Away in a Manger" and its authorship by Martin Luther. I had been taught that the great Protestant theologian had written the lyrics. I like the idea of singing a Christmas song by Luther, but was concerned about a line in the second stanza: "But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes." This line, for which there is no support in the Christmas narratives in the Gospels, comes dangerously close to denying the full humanity of Jesus. If he was truly human as well as truly divine, wouldn't Jesus have cried just like any other baby? How could such an outstanding theologian as Luther make this mistake?
When I began researching the origin of "Away in a Manger," I discovered that there is no reason to believe the lyrics were written by Martin Luther. The song, first published in 1885, does not appear in any of Luther's works. It appears to have been assigned to him by a zealous Lutheran admirer of the song, perhaps in honor of the 400th anniversary of Luther's birth.
I felt relieved to learn that Martin Luther was not behind the "no crying he makes" line. Luther, of all people, would have understood that the fully human Jesus would have done all the things babies do, including crying. After all, the book of Hebrew in the New Testament makes it abundantly clear that Jesus was human just as we are, though without sinning: "For this reason [Jesus] had to be made like [other humans], fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people" (Heb. 2:17).
I still like "Away in a Manger," in spite of its implication that Jesus was not like other babies. But, when we sing this beloved carol, we must remember that Jesus was both fully God and fully human, and that he most certainly cried during his first hours of life, especially if the lowing of the cattle awakened him. It's wonderful to realize that Jesus really understands what it's like to be human, to feel sadness and pain, even to cry, because he was truly human.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: When you think of Jesus, do you think of him as truly human? What difference does it make if the baby Jesus actually cried, just like every other baby?
Away in a manger, no crib for His bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head;
The stars in the sky looked down where He lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep in the hay.
The cattle are lowing, the poor Baby wakes.
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.
I love thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky.
And stay by the cradle till morning is nigh.
Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay,
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray!
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care
And take us to heaven, to Live with Thee there. Amen.