Go on, admit it: you were, even after two lines, beginning to merrily hum, tap or whistle along, weren’t you? You know as well as I do that the next line in this carol is: “no crying he makes”. What kind of impression does that give to us of the infant Jesus? Was he born with an intrinsic and innate masterhood of Zen and ability to communicate his need for feeding, toileting and sleeping, that he never cried? Do we really think that he never woke his parents in the night, or that he never re-introduced the world to his semi-digested lunch?
This might sound flippant to you. In a sense I hope it does. Jesus was divine throughout his earthly life and ministry. As Christmas comes around, we joyfully celebrate one of the greatest turning points in human history, when God physically stepped into the business and busyness of everyday human existence. He lived a life that was just like yours and mine – barring that indescribable perfection. At the end of it all, he died a death he did not deserve, all so he could rise victoriously from the grave, appear to his followers several times, and then ascend to heaven. He did this to intercede at the right hand of the Father on our behalf, that we might take hold of the abundant life that he came to offer us.
Even at Christmas, we force ourselves to look forward to the end of the story. It’s not helped by the Church year bringing the death and resurrection of the adult Jesus approximately four months after he’s been born every year. As I’ve just done, we see Jesus for who he became, the glorious work he did, the way to the Father that he irrevocably opened and made available for all. This is an important thing to do. The baby Jesus did not remain a baby.
But, at the beginning of it all, a baby he most certainly was. He had no privilege of status. He was vulnerable to disease, premature death and so on, just as every other baby born in this period was. And this is before Herod sought to eradicate whatever power Jesus is perceived to have, by having every infant in his nation murdered. It has never ceased to amaze me that one of the greatest ways God steps in to and rewrites the human story is to deliberately join with us in experiencing the full, perilous extent of vulnerability, the potential of suffering and pain, death.
I think that we would do well to remember that, not only did Jesus suffer to the ultimate extent for us at the end of his life, but that from its very beginning, he was vulnerable in every way that we are. It is our joy that, through the obedience first of his parents and then himself, he lived the life that he was created for – full of crying out against injustice, crying for a people to turn towards their heavenly father and full of the transforming power of a life submitted to the will of God.
So when you find yourself singing Away in a Manger over this Christmas season, as I’m sure you will, I challenge you to not sing: “no crying he makes”, but something a bit closer to the truth. I’ll leave you to find the lyrics that scan correctly.