Can we please stop singing Away in a manger?

Reforming Christmas one song at a time

Posted on November 27, 2016

I have read a few blogs recently(like this one) asking the Church to be more discerning about what songs It chooses to worship with. I thoroughly agree. For a while now I've been astonished at the worship songs that filter through to typical church services. And then I realised that Christmas was coming! 

Is it just me who stands there whilst singing carols looking around at other people's faces, hoping to see if someone else is thinking of the same issues? Why are the carols, particularly, so full of misleading theology and heretical suggestions? 

So for my own sanity and therapy can I give you an account of my typical thoughts as I stand there in church singing through a particular carol. For starters, lets have 'Away in a Manger'

Here goes... the music starts.

Now the band has done their intro and I begin to sing along.

It's starting off fine enough. The first two rhyming couplets simply portray the baby Jesus sleeping in a feeding trough:

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.

Now I've got no real problem with this. It doesn't ring my bell poetically (it seems a little sugary) but there's enough precedent in the psalms to see that it's not wrong to describe nature worshipping God [Ps 148:3] 

If I could interrupt the music at this point (which I can't) I'd say that we were all missing a huge opportunity here. Since that very baby was actually instrumental in making those watching stars then the first few lines could have said something a lot more profound like 'The stars he created, shone down as he lay... The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.' Something like that. It's not perfect but it makes a bigger statement. Anyway, we move slowly on...

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,

But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.

Ah! Here we have it! The pinnacle of Carolish (Carolingian?) heresy; the meat and potatoes of the infamous 'away in a manger' scandal. Surely I'm not alone in thinking that this is a stupid statement to make.

A non-crying baby! It whiffs of nothing less than some sort of heretical docetism. (making Jesus out to be less than fully human). What are we trying to say by having baby Jesus not cry when rudely awoken by noisy farm animals? We all know animals make loud annoying noises when they're 'lowing' and we all know Jesus can cry! [joh11:35]

If we are claiming that Baby jesus is anything more than human here then I am stopping the choir right now! I refuse to sing my way into the same box as Marcion and a whole pile of early Gnostics.

Is there anything else to suggest by having this newborn baby awoken by animal noises but NOT cry? A natural affinity with farm animals because he was born in such close proximity to them? 

Someone needs to change these words fast, before my children have to sing them in school nativities! 'The cattle are lowing, and Jesus awakes, and just like any other baby, loud crying he makes.' That's not perfect but at least it embraces the realities of incarnational theology.

I love you, Lord Jesus; look down from the sky,

And stay by my side until morning is nigh.

'look down from the sky'? Once again, we have something that is hopelessly misleading. It is a very gross over-simplification to speak of the Risen and Exalted Jesus as living in 'the sky'. And Christianity has a hard time as it is trying to promote a biblically sound doctrine of heaven without globally popular children's carols confusing things further. And since I can read ahead and see that this line basically says the same as the next line, why can't we just replace it with something totally different and save our children from thoughts of heaven being a city in the clouds like that one from Empire Strikes Back (FYI it's on the planet of Bespin)

now we move on...

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask you to stay

Close by me for ever, and love me, I pray.

These are good lyrics! No problems with singing that at all. I'd pray that every day happily. It rounds the song off nicely too. Because it mentions Jesus being 'near us' it emphasises, in a subtle way, the beauty of the incarnation. Through Jesus, God has drawn near to us! Amazing!

But unfortunately, here comes the next few lines to mess everything up!

Bless all the dear children in your tender care,

And fit us for heaven, to live with you there.

What?! Why so confusing! Are we all really singing this?

Which children are in His care? All children? What does it mean to be in his care? 
How are we supposed to be 'fit' for heaven? (I assume it means 'prepare us for heaven').

Being made 'fit' for heaven is not a helpful way to describe Jesus' activity towards people (children or adults) The only way I can ever be made suitable for heaven is through the sacrifice of Jesus at the Cross. However, I don't get the feeling that this is what it is referring to. It seems to be leaning more towards an idea that I need work at making God accept me - that currently I am not 'fit for heaven' but with Jesus' help i can curb by bad habits and get there. I'm not singing that! I could read [Phi 2:12] and debate about it in a bible study, but I'm not going to sing it.

This is just like the rest of the song. Messy theology muddled with sentimental, warm and fuzzy thoughts. It says something a little positive, and then layers it up with something unhealthy or misleading. 

There, the song is finished...

And now I can breathe, sit down, an quietly wonder whether anyone else in this church is aware of what they just sang? and then I spend the rest of the carol service jotting down on the back of the carol sheet, my clumsy but orthodox version of away in a manger.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The baby king Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars he created looked down where he lay,
The maker of all things, asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, our saviour awakes
Our frailty he shows in the crying he makes
Displaying his Glory, though weak and so small
His life was an offering, a gift to us all.

Be near us Lord Jesus, we ask thee to stay
Close by us forever, and love us we pray
Forgive us and free us to live by your grace
That we might adore you, today and always.

NEXT WEEK! I will be laying into 'In the Bleak midwinter'