dueling carols

Yesterday we sang two Christmas carols with opposing views on redemption. Joy to the World rightly proclaims the goodness of creation, the tragic destruction of sin (“no more let sins and sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground”), and God’s plan to save the entire earth, “far as the curse is found.” This is my favorite Christmas carol, both for its jubilant melody and sound theology.

Then we sang Away in a Manger, which, while quite touching (“Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care”), seems unduly influenced by Plato’s low view of creation. Why would someone think that, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”? All waking babies cry, especially if they’re human. The notion that the infant Jesus, startled awake by lowing cattle, would just lie there in blissful serenity sounds docetic. If baby Jesus isn’t fully human, then he could not save you or me. For the sake of your salvation, let the baby cry!

Away in a Manger ends with the Platonic line, “And fit us for heaven, to live with Thee there.” How can this fit with Joy to the World’s triumphant promise that God will redeem the entire earth? Why bother redeeming the world if no one will be here anyway? Reflective Christians will find it difficult to include both Joy to the World and Away in a Manger in the same worship service. If someone is paying attention to what they are singing, they’re bound to wonder how both songs can be true. They’re not.

Update:  Dave asked for a revised version of Away in a Manger. Here is one way to do it. I’ve italicized my changes.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes
The little Lord Jesus, some crying He makes.

Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care
And return from Heaven to live with us here.

16 Comments

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  1. If you rework the lyrics for AITM, we’ll use them on Christmas Eve. Seriously.
    I’m sure you have nothing better to do between now and then! : >

  2. Grr – we are singing both for our Christmas Eve service – and now the discrepancy is going to bug me. But I wonder if “heaven” couldn’t be understood in the broader sense of the new heaven and earth.

  3. About crying babies….it really is true that infants who are secure, well-loved, and attended to without long delay don’t cry much. I know this from experience, and from the experience of many good mothers I know.

    When I teach the Christmas story, I like to focus on the humanity of the infant Jesus, because it always surprises the children. Yes, he cried and spit up and needed his diapers changed. So when I sing “no crying he makes” my heart always hopes that he had a good mommy. I’m guessing so, since God picked her.

  4. I’m sure all mothers who sing lullabies hope their babies don’t cry. It seems like a human sentiment to me, at least from the standpoint of the mother. When I stand near the nursery I often hear mothers say “he doesn’t cry much, he’s a good baby.” Is the song really saying he never cried at all, or that he brought peace to his family?

  5. Dave: Here’s a quick fix.

    The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes
    The little Lord Jesus, some crying He makes.

    Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care
    And return from Heaven to live with us here.

  6. Brian: How do you think the people who are singing the line will interpret it? That would be the key. I think we’re better off using the Bible’s language rather than a Platonic term that we hope our people will figure out.

    Terri and Tim: “Don’t cry much” isn’t the same as “no crying he makes.” In the song the baby Jesus seems startled by lowing cattle. Even the best babies with the best mommies would cry then. I’m now exegeting the song more deeply than I intended. I hope your interpretation is right, though it seems to me less likely, given the context and the other Platonism in the song. I think it would help our people appreciate the full humanity of Jesus if we told them that if you startle the baby Jesus from sleep, he is going to cry until his mommy comes.

  7. You’re quick. We’ll see how it goes.

  8. I love running my pastoral experiments through you! :0 You might prefer “come back” to “return.” Either way, you will forever after be known as the pastor who ruined Christmas!

  9. I’m already called “Scrooge” for going off on “Let it Go” yesterday…and the line: “No right, no wrong, no rules for me! I’m free!” Thanks, Disney. Thanks, a lot.

  10. It seems that AITM is reflecting the theology of Augustine. In Confessions, he speaks of original sin and uses the crying of infants to prove his point. He points to their crying (and his as an infant) to show our selfishness even at such a young age. Whenever I sing this song, I cringe because I think it mistakenly attaches sin to babies crying and makes it clear that Jesus was no sinner.

  11. Good catch, Tim. We’ve got to distinguish the crying of a startled infant from a selfish one.

  12. I have made the same point about Away in a Manger in several sermons over the years, and thus I have become the bad guy in many places, remembered for all the wrong things. I am, of course, impenitent, and I sing the second stanza just the way you suggest.

  13. I’ve never heard that about Augustine’s understanding baby crying as a sign of original sin. Perhaps. I always thought, “Okay, how does a baby let Mom know that it’s got a wet diaper or is hungry? He cries. What would a baby do if he was startled? He’d cry.” And thus baby Jesus would cry.

  14. Can I reprint this at re-integrate.org?

  15. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who has disliked that line. Sometimes I feel like no one else notices and ponders such things.

    Then again, I remember in class when one of the guys had watched “Star Trek, the something-or-other,” the weekend before. “Mike, you ruined it for me. I couldn’t help analyzing all of the post-modern thought in it!” 🙂

  16. While you scholars chew on AIAM, I will keep scratching my head over “Little Drummer Boy”. A baby Jesus crying is one thing; cognitively acknowledging a request for a drum solo is another. After baby Jesus gives the go-ahead, and the drummer boy starts, the ox and lamb keep time. It all sounds like a bad Scooby Doo episode. The drummer boy is the special guest, and the of and lamb are tapping their hooves in the audience!

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