Hymnology: Away in a manger

I’m going to level with you right of the bat: I’m not a fan of Away in a manger. It’s too romanticised, too cute for me. I think I did like it as a child, but as an adult – not so much. However, I have an issue with the carol itself which is beyond merely a matter of style – I think it flirts with heresy. The offending lines are these:

The cattle are lowing
The baby awakes
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes

What’s the problem with that? I know a little about babies, and I know that babies do cry. Quite a lot. There’s nothing wrong with crying – in fact, if a baby didn’t cry you’d be more worried. What I don’t like about this verses is that it suggests that Jesus was somehow not a ‘real’ human baby – he wasn’t a proper baby, he was some kind of ‘super-spiritual’ baby. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I do remember wondering as a child whether this implied that Jesus was different to other children.

The idea that Jesus was not a real human being is an ancient one, and it is a heresy known as doceticism (from the ancient Greek dokeo, which means to seem or appear – Jesus only appeared to be human). This is a very early heresy – in fact the apostle John writes about it in 1 John 4:2-3 – “This is how you can recognise the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.” Evidently some in the church John was writing to were teaching that Jesus had not come ‘in the flesh’.

So I’d like to use the opportunity to outline why it’s important that Jesus Christ came as a real human baby and not some heavenly apparition who just happened to look human. Irenaeus, a Bishop of the early church, wrote against doceticism. Here’s an except from one of his writings – Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching:

The Son of God became Son of David and Son of Abraham; perfecting and summing up this in Himself, that He might make us to possess life. The Word of God was made flesh by the dispensation of the Virgin, to abolish death and make man live. For we were imprisoned by sin, being born in sinfulness and living under death. […]

Now, if He was not born, neither did He die; and, if He died not, neither did He rise from the dead; and, if He rose not from the dead, neither did He vanquish death and bring its reign to nought; and if death be not vanquished, how can we ascend to life, who from the beginning have fallen under death? So then those who take away redemption from man, and believe not God that He will raise them from the dead, these also despise the birth of our Lord, which He underwent on our behalf, that the Word of God should be made flesh in order that He might manifest the resurrection of the flesh, and might have pre-eminence over all things in the heavens, as the first-born and eldest offspring of the thought of the Father, the Word, fulfilling all things, and Himself guiding and ruling upon earth. For He was the Virgin’s first-born, a just and holy man, god fearing, good, well-pleasing to God, perfect in all ways, and delivering from hell all who follow after Him: for He Himself was the first-begotten of the dead, the Prince and Author of life unto God

I appreciate this is not a simple passage and takes a little getting your head around. But I think the argument is quite straightforward.

The reason Jesus came was to save mankind from sin and death and to give life. Now, if Jesus wasn’t born – a genuine human birth – then he did not die a genuine human death. If he didn’t die, then he didn’t rise again, and if he didn’t rise again then he has not destroyed death. If death is not destroyed – then how can we gain eternal life?

Jesus had to become like us in order to save us. That’s the whole point. Jesus had to take upon himself human flesh to bring human flesh to God. Athanasius makes a similar point in On the Incarnation – only a man could identify with mankind and be united with them; only God could bring people to God. In Jesus, the God-man, fully man and fully God, we have the only one who is able to bring mankind to God.

So, this Christmas – and, indeed, all year round – it’s good to rejoice that Jesus was really and truly God, and really and truly human. One carol which does do a lot better in this regard is Once in Royal David’s City (apart from having a quibble with the line ‘Christian children all must be / mild, obedient, good as He’…):

For he is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.

Jesus Christ was really human, like us. He knew tears and smiles, he can sympathise with us. This is the message which this beautiful video picks up on:

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