This year’s Christmas Eve sermon on Silent Night reminded me of a sermon I preached on Christmas Morning, 2011 looking at the message of the Christmas carol “Away in a Manger.”
Some Christian leaders refuse to sing “Away in a Manger,” citing the lyrics (namely, “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”) as “odd or misleading,” saying, “This lyric misses a key aspect of the Incarnation: Jesus entered into our suffering.” I disagree.
This sermon examines the beloved Christmas carol and defends its message—a reminder and celebration of Jesus’ divinity and humanity, his majesty and his humility.
The Beloved Manger
How many of you have, somewhere in your house during the Christmas season, some representation of the manger (a physical manger, a nativity scene, a picture or Christmas card, etc.)?
How many of you have a cross displayed in your home (on jewelry, a picture, knickknacks, etc.)?
There are two scenes that we, as Christians, are fond of creating displays to physically represent: the birth of Christ and the death of Christ. We have Passion plays and Christmas pageants. We put up Nativity scenes and hang crosses on our walls. (If these are rivaled by anything—it is probably displays of the flood that we put in our children’s hands, but that is a different sermon!)
On the edge of the town that I grew up in, sitting on the highway, is an old farmstead, complete with a giant barn. Every year, around Christmas, they had a “live nativity.” There would sometimes be a man and woman, holding a baby, sitting outside to greet the passing cars. But the best part was inside the barn.
Every year we would go inside to watch the live nativity. As the events recorded in the Gospel were read, characters in costume would appear, accompanied by live animals. There were horses and sheep, cattle and goats, and always a donkey. An angel stood in the hayloft, playing the trumpet. Shepherds surrounded Mary and Joseph. But the part that always captured my attention was the manger—and who was in it. I wondered every year—“will there be a doll, or a real, live baby!?” And as soon as it appeared, I lost attention in everything else. Until it was time for cookies and cocoa, my eyes were fixed on the manger.
Every year, on the piano in our living room, we set up a nativity scene. The pieces are exactly what you would expect. Mary, Joseph, shepherds, animals, an angel, a stable scene, and the Christ-child, who is, of course, wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.
What Did It Look Like?
I’m still fascinated by the manger in nativity scenes. What does the baby Jesus look like? I’ve seen nativity scenes with characters (and a baby) that were Asian, African-American, Caucasian, blond-haired and blue-eyed. I’ve seen depictions of the nativity set in sand and in snow.
There is, of course, no biblical mandate in Scripture to depict the crucifixion or the nativity in physical form, nor any example of it. (Though, we should add that the New Testament expects us to imitate both with our lives of faith!)
We know very little about the actual physical circumstances of Christ’s birth. It is debated whether the “stable” was the courtyard of a house, the lower level of a home, a separate stable-building or a cave. And, we have no idea what the physical manger looked liked. And, apart from a few details, about the manger and shepherd visitors, we really know nothing about how the night unfolded.
Nevertheless, this scene has fascinated children and adults, poets and painters, for ages.
And, the manger, an almost incidental element in the story of Christ’s birth, has become an icon that is almost synonymous with Christmas.
Why does it fascinate us so? I thought that to answer that question we might think through one of the most beloved Christmas carols of our culture—“Away in a Manger.”
The Origins of “Away in a Manger”*
“Away in a Manger” is consistently ranked in the top two or three Christmas carols in both the United States and Great Britain. It has been set to over 40 different tunes.
It is a fascinating hymn, as almost every aspect of it is swaddled with uncertainty.
Its first appearance was in 1885, where the first two stanzas were printed in the Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families, published in Pennsylvania by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America. Its author was anonymous.
It appeared again in 1887, in Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses, edited by John Murray, who composed the tune, Mueller, to which it is commonly sung in the U.S.
Mueller titled it “Luther’s Cradle Hymn,” with the note: “Composed by Martin Luther for his children, and still sung by German mothers to their little ones.” As one author writes, “Murray…probably allowed his fanciful imagination to get the better of him, certainly not the first time that someone got heady from the Christmas experience” (Clancy, Ronald M. Best-Loved Christmas Carols).
It is almost certainly not written by Luther. Though Martin Luther loved children and did write books and hymns for his children to sing, this hymn has never been found in any of his works. It is possible that it was written for the 400th Anniversary of Luther’s birth in 1884, probably composed by a member of the German Lutheran colonies in Pennsylvania.
The third verse is often credited to John T McFarland, who was the Secretary of the American Lutheran Board of Sunday Schools. The story goes that he was asked to write a third stanza for a Children’s Day program in 1904. That story is unlikely, given that the stanza appeared for the first time twelve years earlier in 1892, in a collection edited by Charles H. Gabriel (who also attributed the whole text to Martin Luther). (It is likely that Gabriel wrote the third stanza himself.)
So, we know very little of the origin of this carol—but, it is with us to stay! We want to sing with understanding, so let’s think about how it helps us understand the Word of God and the meaning of Jesus’ birth. I’ll offer three biblical truths about Jesus, one from each stanza.
The first stanza reads:
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.
What truth do we take from this?
(1) Jesus is the Lord who identified with his people in their lowliness.
When you read Luke 2, it is interesting to ask the question—“Was Jesus’ birth humble or exalted?”
On the one hand, his birth is glorious, isn’t it! What other child do you know of whose birth was announced by “an angel of the Lord” accompanied by a multitude of heavenly armies of angels praising God for the birth? What other child do you know of whose arrival was specifically marked by a cosmic event, the appearance of a star—which summoned representatives from the nations to come and worship him?
Jesus’ birth is an exalted, glorious birth—for he is presented and announced as “a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” And this verse recognizes this: Jesus is the “Lord”—so that even the stars in the sky pay attention to his birth.
But the exalted aspects of his birth, which reflect his person, are precisely what make other aspects of his birth so memorable.
On the other hand, his birth is humble, isn’t it! The Gospel tells us that he was born in shame—to an unwed mother, whose fiancé stood by her.
Mary didn’t give birth in a clean, comfortable home. No, “she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” His entry into the world was in an unclean, undesirable environment.
And who were his first visitors? Not royalty or dignitaries, but dirty shepherds.
These past few weeks, almost every time we get in our van, my three-year-old daughter makes a request—“Daddy! Daddy! I want to hear the song about “Baby Jesus has no crib.” What resonates with our daughter, what sticks in her three-year-old mind, is that this baby did not have a proper bed. And what a great lesson for a child to learn about Jesus! For this is true of Jesus—what he deserved was not what he received.
The Humility of the God-Man
The Apostle Paul writes of his birth in Philippians 2:
Christ Jesus…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
In other words, Jesus understood it was not robbery, not wrong for him to claim equality with God as his own. Nevertheless, even though he deserved and rightfully possessed the glory of God in heaven, he humbled himself, even by taking on human nature.
And the hymn emphasizes this: the Lord (divine language, for this baby is God and King) has a “sweet head” (a human nature)—God had become flesh to dwell with us as a man! But he does not just share human nature, but the worst of human suffering:
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
And the hymn emphasizes this too: He slept in a “manger,” with “no crib for a bed,” on “hay.” We have a picture here of the Son of God humbling himself, being born in the likeness of man—even into less than desirable circumstances.
Why would God send his Son into the world to be born in a manger, with no crib for a bed, to sleep in the hay—and not in a palace with a feather-bed in a golden bassinet? It is because his entry into the world spoke of who he was and what his life would be. As Luke would record Jesus to say of himself (9:58), “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” He was, as the prophet said (Isa 53:3), “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.”
And why did Jesus suffer as a man? The author of Hebrews writes (2:17):
He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
Ultimately, his suffering would not be sleeping in a manger, no crib for a bed, being a man with “no place to lay his head,” but suffering under the wrath of God in his death on the cross for sinners. Jesus became a man, suffered and died so that he might save people from their sins.
For those of you who have nativity displays in your home (a manger scene or picture or Christmas cards): How many of those representations of baby Jesus present him with a red face, eyes scrunched shut, toothless mouth wide-open, screaming at the top of his lungs? How many of you have a nativity set, with a baby whose swaddling cloths are stained with spit-up? Or, with a mother, exasperated with trying to calm a colicky baby? Trying to wipe the tar-like meconium off her little son? A stable with dung on the floor?
We like to present the birth of Jesus as a very serene scene. We know it very likely was not.
Why do we sing “Silent night…all is calm, all is bright,” when it was not silent and all was not bright, and there weren’t “radiant beams” from his holy face? Why do we sing, “Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning”—when we don’t know what time of day he was born. (Was it morning or night!? Aargh!)
A “Misleading” Lyric?
Stanza 2 begins with such a “serene” description:
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus no crying He makes.
What’s up with that? If there is any aspect of this hymn that is sure to raise an eyebrow (or two), it is not the mention of baby Jesus sleeping or the hay or cattle or watching stars—none of which are mentioned in the Bible. It is the line, “But little Lord Jesus no crying He makes,” that stirs people up.
Some have suggested that it springs from the heresies of “Gnosticism” or “Apollinarianism,” both of which deny the full humanity of Jesus. (Given what we do know of the song’s origin, that conclusion is more suspicious than the song!)
Others refuse to sing it, citing the lyrics as “odd or misleading,” saying, “This lyric misses a key aspect of the Incarnation: Jesus entered into our suffering.”
I’ve already belabored the point that the hymn stressed Jesus’ identification with our sufferings. It is hard to think of the Lord (God!) becoming man and sleeping in a hay-filled cradle amongst cattle without thinking of him entering into our suffering.
Did Baby Jesus Cry?
So, is the author saying that baby Jesus never cried? We don’t know who the author is, so we can’t ask him or compare this with anything else he’s written.
But, it seems hard to imagine that the author actually thought that Jesus never cried! And besides, that isn’t what the hymn says either. It imagines a scene, one scene, in which the cattle make some noise and baby wakes up.
Is it possible that such a scene could have occurred? Of course, it is!
We have raised four children through infancy, and so, I have a little personal experience with babies. One of the things that amaze me, besides how loud babies can be, is how content they can be. I recall that, as a new father, one thing I could not get over is how our infant children could be content in loud places. There were times we were in a loud restaurant with a lot of commotion or at a noisy family gathering, and our young baby would be in his car seat, just content to look around. That is not to say that noise never scared them. But, it is possible for a baby to wake up in a noisy place and stay content.
So, the question we should ask is this: why did the author choose to present Jesus in this way? (Or better, why do we present it this way?) It is probably because we understand that something miraculous and extraordinary was happening that night. The angel in Luke’s narrative announced:
Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!
And the angelic host proclaimed:
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.
We know it is a birth marking of “good news,” “great joy,” and “peace on earth.” How do we, in poem and art, depict such joy and peace? I think part of the way that artists have striven to present “peace on earth” is through a “peaceful” scene—even though we know it was noisy and stinky and messy and painful and there was crying and pooping and projectile vomiting.
Just as the crude, uncomfortable circumstances of his birth might remind us of the cross, let the imagined and legendary contentedness point you to how he would receive mistreatment later.
Here’s how I would suggest you sing this line, remembering that:
(2) Jesus is the Lord who suffered for us perfectly, without complaint.
I would have found such a reading of this hymn far-fetched, but something I did changed my mind—I wrote a Christmas hymn. In 2000, I wrote the hymn “How Beautiful the Mystery” for our family Christmas card. I wrote a hymn that I intended to be read two ways. I wrote:
Content we find Him cradled there
Amongst the filth and beasts.
What am I describing here? It depicts his birth—born in a stable among filthy animals. But, I intended to depict a something greater—Jesus’ entire life and death. It wasn’t about animals and a stall—but about Jesus being content to take on flesh and live amongst sinners (filth and beasts) like me.
By angry swords and dark decree
He’s driven from His land.
But still He humbly bows His head
To trust His Father’s hand.
What am I meaning there? On one level, I intended to depict him fleeing with his earthly mother and father to Egypt to escape Pharaoh’s wrath. But, ultimately, I was meaning him being “cut off out of the land of the living” (Isa 53:8), by the dark decree of God and man. A death he takes by humbly trusting his Father.
And I realized: if that was my intent in describing the birth of Jesus—shouldn’t I give another hymn writer the benefit of the doubt?
The Silent but Crying Savior
Several months ago, this hymn came to mind, and so I did a search on my Bible software for the word “cry” used in conjunction with Jesus. Immediately, I found Isaiah 42:2, speaking of the gentle Servant figure, who is Jesus:
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street…
But, I also found Hebrews 5:7:
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.
Of course, Jesus cried! Not only did he cry as a baby—he cried as a full-grown man in the face of death! We could also go to Isaiah 53:7:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.
But, even then, when you go to the passages where this is fulfilled in the Gospels, we find him speaking! He speaks at his arrest, his trial and his crucifixion—he “opened his mouth!”
So then, we have to ask what Isaiah meant–and how the Gospel writers understand its fulfillment. And, I think this is where we find a helpful answer.
In each of the Gospels, the authors point out an occasion where Jesus gave no answer when questioned at his trial (he opened not his mouth). Jesus silently refuses to answer the false charges against him, to fight for his rights. He is humbly suffering through what he does not deserve, obeying his father, entrusting himself to God’s care, as he goes to crucifixion.
As Philippians 2 says, he is humbling himself to the point of death, even death on a cross. Or, as 1 Peter 2:23 records:
When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.
A friend suggested that perhaps the hymn should read, “No whining he makes.” That is probably a better way of saying it—Jesus didn’t whine. He suffered by “entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
So, Jesus identified with lowliness and suffered without complaint—where does that leave us? I love how the hymn ends:
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.
Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray
This stanza is rich with implications about Jesus:
(3) Jesus is the Risen Lord, who can save undeserving sinners who hope in him.
— He is still alive.
“I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky…” It’s a song about a birth that happened almost 2,000 years ago—and yet, it speaks to Jesus, as though he is still alive! And, of course, he is—for although his life was one of suffering, even to death on a cross, he was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven.
— He is both in heaven and with us.
We’re asking Jesus to “look down from the sky.” And yet, we don’t want him to be a passive, distant observer, but to
…stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.
Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray
And, of course, this is also true! For Jesus promised his disciples that though he would depart from them to his Father’s side, he would not leave them alone but would come to them. He would dwell with them through his Holy Spirit.
— He is with us in our suffering.
Unlike Jesus, we have a cradle. (Well…probably not a literal cradle—another indication the author is being symbolic, not literal with Jesus and his crying.) Jesus took suffering beyond what we ever would. Therefore, he knows how to sympathize with us in our weaknesses, having become like us.
— He is with us to save us, though we do not deserve it.
The hymn ends with a precious prayer:
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,
And fit us for heaven, to live with Thee there.
We end praying that he would bless every child that has been given to his care, bless all those the Father has given to him.
We pray that he would “fit us for heaven, to live with him there.” This is an admission that we are not, on our own, fit to live in heaven with Jesus. This is a confession that Jesus must make us fit to live in heaven—and is capable of doing so.
And this, of course, is at the heart of Christmas. We have all sinned. We have all, like sheep, gone astray.
Despite our sin, the angel told Joseph—“You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” As Isaiah put it (Isa 53:11):
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
Jesus took the punishment that we deserve in his own body, suffering perfectly in the place of sinners. And, when we repent and believe in him, his righteousness is counted as our own. God the Father declares us to be perfect. Our sin is forgiven, his righteousness is ours—we are fit for heaven, to live with him there.
Remember the Little Lord Who Did Not Cry
So, as you celebrate the birth of Jesus this year, as you remember him “away in a manger, no crib for a bed,” remember this and believe in him:
Jesus sinlessly suffered, died and rose to redeem and dwell with all those who hope in him. If you believe in him, then know that he stays close by you forever, and loves you always. He blesses all that Father entrusts to his care. He has fit you for heaven, to live with him there.
- Richard S. Hill, “Not So Far Away in a Manger“
- Best-Loved Christmas Carols by Ronald M. Clancy
This sermon was originally preached at Northbrook Baptist Church, Cedar Rapids.