“O Sing a Song of Bethlehem: Away in a Manger”
December 4, 2022
No good way to segue from that to this so I’ll just say that’s what happens when both our organist and back-up organist are out sick. Also, let that be a reminder that we are in our second week of an Advent sermon series called “O Sing a Song of Bethlehem.” Each week we will focus on a favorite hymn from the canon of Advent and Christmas music. Today…we turn to – you guessed it– “Away in a Manger.” The story that serves as its inspiration comes from the Gospel of Luke, the second chapter. Will you pray with me.
“In the familiar contours of this story, God, wrap us warmly in your Word that we might be changed by the one we encounter. Amen.”
Scripture – Luke 2:1-7
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
For a long time, “Away in a Manger” was one of those “Unsolved Mysteries” of the Hymnal – nobody knew exactly who wrote it. The folklore was that Martin Luther sang it as a lullaby to his own children.
Martin Luther did have children and he did write hymns, but he was also a teacher through and through and so had a habit of packing every song with as much theological doctrine as possible. “Away in a Manger” doesn’t quite fit that profile, so that claim was always a bit suspect.
It’s far more likely that the song was penned by a Lutheran minister here in America during the late 1800s. The theory is that the author “suggested” that it was written by Luther so folks would take the hymn more seriously.
Whether Luther sang it to his children or not, it would be fair to say that “Away in a Manger” is a lullaby. (Just listen to the music (Liam, play a bit of the tune on the piano).
It’s very gentle, peaceful, sing-song-y even…I think that’s what makes it a Christmas favorite. It evokes the warm glow of a soft-lit stable and a softer-skinned baby sound asleep in the hay. In that respect, it shares with our Luke reading what I would call a certain “suspension of reality.”
When you read Luke’s version of the story, do you ever get the feeling that the author never witnessed actual childbirth?
Luke just says “The time came for her to deliver her child.”
Oh, I think what you mean – Luke – is that she had contractions that sent her whole body into paroxysms of pain…
Then Luke sparingly narrates, “She gave birth to her son” – That’s it. She just…gave birth.
No labor, no wave after wave of nausea, no white-knuckles gripping Joseph’s arms saying “WHY DID YOU DO THIS TO ME???” and Joseph weakly protesting – “I see that you are in pain, but technically, dear, I had nothing to do with this…”
(True, Joseph, but maybe not the best time to bring that up)
So Yeah – I suspect the author of Luke never saw a real, live birth.
I suspect the same for whoever wrote the lyrics to “Away in a Manger.” Especially when it comes to this line.
The cattle are lowing the poor baby wakes
But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes
I don’t want to say that having twins doubles my disgust with this “no crying he makes” line, but I think…having twins doubles my disgust with this line.
No crying? You have got to be kidding me?
In fact, that “no crying he makes” line was actually the source of no small controversy as some claimed that it denied the full humanity of Jesus. Who knew that going for an easy rhyme scheme could have you courting theological heresy?
I may not be able to re-write the Gospel of Luke, but I am not afraid to re-write “Away in a Manger” – so let’s see if this rings a little closer to the truth.
Away in a manger
No crib for his bed
The little Lord Jesus
Screamed til he turned red
The Shepherds just got here
Unannounced, but that’s fine
No matter how holy
Parenting’s still a grind.
I think that sounds a little more like it. So yeah, saying that both Gospel and Hymn alike contain a little “suspension of reality” might be generous.
But here’s the thing – take a closer look at the story and you’ll actually see the seams in the story that betray some harsher truths.
Luke begins by saying that Emperor Augustus was doing what emperor’s do – moving pawns around on a chess board. “Everyone has to be registered,” he says and that means going back to your hometown. For Joseph that would be Bethlehem.
And so Joseph and a very pregnant Mary are forced to travel from their home at a most inconvenient time. They wait in long lines at Security checkpoints – the guards rummage through Joseph’s bags, discarding the bottle of baby lotion because it’s bigger than 3 oz.
Mary slips her swollen feet out of too-small shoes to go through the X-ray machine while a Roman guard barks at her “Hold your hands above your head.” Mary gently but defiantly replies ‘You do realize that with 8 pounds of baby sitting right on top of my bladder, even that modest movement may cause me to wet myself.” The guard is unmoved.
They finally get to Bethlehem only to discover that every Hampton and Holiday Inn is already booked – “I told you we should have called ahead for a reservation.” Off to the barn they go.
As luck would have it – Mary has her baby far away from her cozy nesting in Nazareth. She can do nothing but wrap that baby boy in some bands of cloth.
Doesn’t sound like the source material for a lullaby does it?
The story is filled with subversive details:
1. While the Powers-That-Be are busy moving people around on the map, the Savior is born – a dislocated refugee.
2. Mary laid him in the manger – in a feeding trough – as if to say ‘this world is going to eat that boy alive.”
3. “No room for them in the Inn” – as if to say there will be no place for him in this world – he simply will not fit.
Perhaps the hymn does get it right after all – this baby is most certainly put Away in a manger – out of sight, out of mind. Where it’s easier to ignore him.
That’s where I take more issue with this “no crying he makes” line.
A baby’s cry is it’s communication.
When a baby cries, He’s saying – “Remember me.”
When a baby cries, She’s saying – “I’m still here…you will not forget me.”
I worry less about the hymn denying Christ’s full humanity.
It’s more that it just does not sound like Jesus at all.
Jesus wasn’t one to let things slide if it caused weeping and pain.
I don’t enjoy bringing this up, but did you know we are approaching the ten year anniversary of the Sandy Hook School shooting. Among the 26 victims that day was a young girl named Ana Greene.
She ought to be getting her driver’s license now; staying out past curfew; begging her parents for Taylor Swift tickets this Christmas…normal teenage stuff.
Her father, Jimmy, would have likely obliged for he is a Jazz musician himself. He plays the saxophone professionally.
After losing his daughter, though, it was as if the music drained right out of him. Jimmy couldn’t even look at his instrument. It brought back too many painful memories – his daughter asking to hear the Annie soundtrack for the 700th time, or the home recordings of his little girl singing church hymns.
After a long season of running away from music, Jimmy realized if he was going to heal, it would have to be through music. And so he began writing and arranging the songs and collecting the home recordings that would make up his album “Beautiful Life.”
All the album’s proceeds were in support of a couple projects: 1) a music program for at-risk youth – the same program that taught Jimmy to play as a young man; and 2) to develop a school curriculum on the topics of empathy, violence-prevention and trauma recovery.
With his music, Jimmy is trying to take all of his pain and turn it into something that heals, not just himself, but others as well.
All of this in honor of his daughter Ana.
Because when a beautiful life ends so tragically – it demands to be remembered…like a crying baby, it demands to be heard.
Today we hear the very beginning of a story about Jesus’ truly beautiful life.
He didn’t fit – but he always made sure that others did.
There was no room for him – but he would make sure there was always room for others.
The carol leads us to believe that that baby never cried – I don’t know about that, I’ve got my doubts – but here’s what I do believe – I believe that whenever we cry, he notices…he cares…and he cries too.
When we cry out in the dark night of our deepest pain – he hears us, and in the words of the hymn he “stays by our side until morning is nigh.”
When we cry out for a place to belong – he makes room for anyone and everyone.
That – my friends – is something worth singing about. Amen.