Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Christmas Hymnody: Theology and History (3)

One of the quintessential sentimental favorites of the Christmas season, "Away in a Manger," focuses on the Christ child, sweet and innocent, but also, for want of a better phrase, excessively divine.
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.

The cattle are lowing, the Baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes;
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;
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,
And fit us for Heaven to live with Thee there.
The line, "But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes," is highly problematic. To suggest that the infant Jesus did not cry when he awoke, like any normal baby would, is to diminish his humanity and over-emphasize his divinity. Sound theology holds Christ's divinity and humanity in proper balance. Perhaps we should cut the author a little theological slack here, however. The song is a children's lullaby with a soothing melody intended to calm a whimpering child. What better comfort can there be than to have "the little Lord Jesus" himself staying by your cradle "till morning is nigh?"

Authorship of this hymn is the source of much dispute. The third stanza was written by John McFarland (1851-1913). The original two stanzas, as published in an 1885 Lutheran children's songbook, have been attributed to none other than Martin Luther. This claim is dubious, to say the least. Two years after the initial publication, the song appeared in another children's book under the title, "Luther's Cradle Hymn," but there is little or no historical evidence to trace the text back to the Great Reformer himself.