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:

Happy Christmas

A Bible

I’d just like to wish all my loyal blog readers a happy Christmas. May it be peaceful and refreshing and full of good cheer!

This term at college I am going to be studying the book of Hebrews, which talks a lot about the supremacy of Christ. I’d like to quote from the opening verses, which it would be worth reflecting on with me over the Christmas break:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

‘In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son’ – powerful and amazing words. Hebrews talks about Jesus as the word of God the father (c.f. John 1) – God’s word, what he has spoken to us, is Jesus. The incarnation, that little baby in the nativity scene, is God’s word to us. What an amazing truth. Do we listen to Him?

Happy Christmas

I did say a few days ago I’d try and post again before Christmas. I was planning to write something intelligent and profound, but – well, actually, given it’s me you may be waiting a long time for that! I just wanted to post up a quick “Happy Christmas” to you.

At our carol service on Sunday night we sang “On Christmas night all Christians sing”, and I’d like to post up a couple of the verses from it:

Then why should men on earth be sad,
Since our Redeemer made us glad:
Then why should we on earth be sad,
Since our Redeemer made us glad:
When from our sin He set us free,
All for to gain our liberty.

When sin departs before Your grace,
Then life and health come in its place;
When sin departs before Your grace,
Then life and health come in its place;
Angels and men with joy may sing,
All for to see the newborn King.

It’s not a carol I sing very often, but it struck me this year: “Why should men on earth be sad, since our Redeemer made us glad: When from our sin He set us free… When sin departs before your grace, then life and health come in its place.”

I hope and pray this Christmas you may know the life and health which comes of the joy of knowing your sins forgiven and the freedom that comes from that. As Jesus said in John 8:35-36, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

Happy Christmas 🙂

Christmas Carols

I was originally intending to write a little light-hearted ‘review’ of some Christmas Carol lyrics here, but somewhat ran out of steam. Instead, I just wanted to post one or two thoughts about the Christmas Carols which many people (in this country at least) sing year on year. We’ve been to a carol service this evening at Christ Church, Cockfosters which was absolutely packed out – I think this goes to show that the popularity of the carol service is enduring and isn’t going to go away any time soon!

I was struck as we sang ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ – not a carol I’m a massive fan of (it goes on a bit…) – but one of the verses is:

Not in that poor lowly stable,
with the oxen standing round,
we shall see him; but in heaven,
set at God’s right hand on high;
when like stars his children crowned,
all in white shall wait around.

What struck me anew1 was the last line, the clear allusion to Revelation 7: “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands … These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

As Richard James (vicar of Christ Church) said in his talk this evening, the Cross hangs over the stable: you can’t have one without the other. It just struck me in a new way that Christ’s incarnation is the most wondrous thing that’s ever happened – the fact that he came down, incarnate as ‘flesh’ – as a man – but that in dying and rising again he defeated death, and in the words of Te Deum ‘opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers’.

I think, particularly in evangelical circles, we’re too keen to brush over the sheer wonder of it all. At Christmas we rightly sing and praise God for the fact that he came as an ordinary human baby, and yet – in the words of ‘Hark the Herald Ages Sing’ ‘Veiled in flesh the Godhead see’: Christ Jesus – the image of the invisible God, by whom and for whom all things were created – there as a baby, helpless in his mother’s arms. I think perhaps in theological circles it’s easy to say those words without ever stepping back and thinking … “wow. this is absolutely mind-blowing.” And yet, this man died on a cross for us and for our salvation.

This Christmas I’ve been struck by Emmanuel ‘God With Us’ – this is something I’m going to be reflecting on over the next few days and weeks. How amazing it is that God was incarnate among us. How incredible it is that he died for us, and how awesome that one day those who trust in him will be with him, washed in the blood of the lamb, singing ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’. Soli deo gloria.

1 I think the reason it struck me anew was that the verse is different in Mission Praise, looks like it’s been altered from the original.