The Not-So-Silent Night

I enjoy the Advent season. It’s a time with rich theology and significance, pointing us towards the birth of Christ and his return. It’s our cyclical reminder that we live in the time between times and that we need the yearly kick in the pants that we are to be actively watchful. It can be a time to spur us on to justice and kingdom work, realizing that the birth of Christ invites us to become c

o-laborers with him in joyful anticipation of the fulfillment of God’s great and ongoing opus of renewing creation.

It’s the celebration of Christmas that gives me trouble. It’s quite easy to go down a list of things wrong with the w

ay most people celebrate Christmas–everything from consumerism to ecological footprint on the earth, from Santa Claus to cheesy “Christmas” music. The reality is that most people don’t celebrate or even understand the birth of Christ. Even (and sometimes even more so!) i

n the church, people have trouble really grasping what’s at stake with the birth of Jesus (check out this church and this one doing Christmas in “3-D”–way to go suburban Texas!). You don’t have to even go as far out as the crazy mega-churches to realize how much we turn the world-shattering implications of the incarnation and Christ’s return into a cute an

d friendly story (and while, rightly, some people have pointed out the problems that come with Lion imagery for Jesus, C.S. Lewis gets it spot on when he says through Mr. Beaver in The

Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, “Course he isn’t safe!”). You don’t have to look beyond the depth of many of our Christmas themes and even our hymns to understand why so many people have a pathetic view of Jesus’ birth and what it calls us to.

Imagination is a requirement when reading the birth narratives. Contemporary readers h

ave so little context for what Matthew and Luke describe. I especially love Luke’s telling as it so obviously contrasts the decree of Caesar and the culture of Emperor worship with the subversive and lowly way Jesus enters the world and is worshiped. But our imagination has been severely disabled by some of the songs we sing. Take for instance, Away in a Manger:

Away in a manger,
No crib for His 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

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 my side,
‘Til 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

I’ve sang this carol for most of my life, and while I think it has a simple and pretty melody, its words and theology are questionable at best. Yet this quiet, quaint picture of the birth of Jesus is what most of us imagine when we think of the birth of God. We imagine the search for a place to give birth as a “we’ll all laugh about this later” scenario, perhaps comparing it to humorous incidents of a newlywed couple on their honeymoon. The cute cows and the cute sheep and the cute dove singing all but made up for the fact that Jesus was born in a dark cave, the contemporary equivalent not to a shabby motel but more likely beneath a highway overpass. It is nearly impossible to divorce this cartoon movie story from our theology, an important indicator of just how important the songs we sing are to our theology. Never mind that while the cattle are lowing, Herod is giving the order for a genocide of male children born around the same time as Jesus. Somehow, I can’t imagine God not crying over that.

Check out the two of the other stanzas:

I love Thee, Lord Jesus
Look down from the sky
And stay by my side,
‘Til morning is nigh.

Bless all the dear children
In Thy tender care
And take us to heaven
To live with Thee there

This is what we teach kids about Jesus! I think Christmas can provide an excellent opportunity to teach kids about Jesus; it’s pretty easy to get kids excited this time of year. But because this season is so ingrained and special in kids’ minds, we have to make sure that it’s accompanied with theology that doesn’t do a disservice to both them and the church. From an early age, we are crippling our kids theologically so that in 15 years they will have a crisis of faith when they finally realize that Jesus not only doesn’t dwell in the sky but isn’t as interested in  “taking us to heaven to live with Thee there” when we die as he is in inviting us to participate in the establishing of his kingdom on earth. It’s vital to the livelihood of the church that we teach young ones a story that they won’t have to abandon for its shallowness years down the road. Abandoning one story is often accompanied by abandoning others until the point where people have no identification with any story. This is what has created, in part, the “emerging” church movement.

For all its romanticism, Away in a Manger is  more or less an insult to the Christmas story. I have no great false hopes that over night, the church as a whole will do a better job of not only celebrating but preaching, teaching, and living the implications of Christ’s birth both in history and eschatologically. I only ask and pray for baby steps. Away in a Manger has got to go.

Instead, how about we replace it with a not-so-sung poem, written roughly the same time: (I like the Pedro the Lion version of it)

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

4 Responses

  1. [...] Brian Gorman (yes, he’s related) has a fine post about some of the church’s theologically poor and misleading Christmas music, above all “Away in a Manger” (sorry, kids) here. [...]

  2. Ok, point taken. But it’s a lullaby. Lullabies are, by their nature, places for parents to maintain the fantasy of a safe world for their children. I would like to believe that even Mary indulged in lullabies from time to time.

    • I like the melody–let’s just find some better words! :)

      • The lullaby genre includes words and melody… :-) You don’t sing “wake up every 3 hours” for a lullaby even if you sing it quietly!

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