Sunday, December 20, 2009

Bad Words II: "No Crying He Makes"

If you went to any Christmas concerts this year you likely heard children singing Away in a Manger, and if you are like me, you probably groaned a little bit inside when they came to the line: "The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes." I mean, come on, who are we kidding here?

God either became human in this child, or this child is relatively meaningless. God either met humanity in its finitude, its creatureliness, its pain, its suffering, and even its sin---or God did not meet us here at all. And if Jesus as a grown man wept openly outside the tomb of Lazarus, moments before raising him to life, and was indignant at the sorrow, then why should Christians imagine even for a second that he shed not a tear in his infancy?

I can think of a few reasons why the song might signify the Messiah's birth this way, and on the surface some of them aren't entirely bad. The most obvious is that this song is just a Sunday School lullaby for children. So lighten up, Jon.

A second reason is that the song wants to portray the grander peace on earth represented in this baby, and is seizing upon a magnificent parent-child moment which undoubtedly did happen in Jesus' infancy (there is no reason to think he cried constantly and never slept) in order to drive home this point.

A third reason is that, like pretty much every painting of the nativity, the song wishes to depict the divinity of this child and the gravity of this moment, and so puts a halo around the heads and sublimity on the faces so that we'll distinguish it from the picture of just any old mother and son.

Fair enough, I suppose. But I think there are serious problems with each of these reasons. Even the lullaby one: If you think about it, isn't it kind of a sideways attempt to ingrain children with the notion that crying is bad? This needs to be thrown in the rubbish along with the line "be a man and stop crying". Furthermore, as a children's Christmas song it therefore teaches children precisely the opposite of what they should be taught, and that is that the Son of God was not just a man, but a child like them, and came even as far as to be with them in their (often dismissed as petty and trivial but to them potent and real) suffering.

The second and third reasons are well-intentioned enough, but on further inspection are found seriously wanting. Certainly, the angels do declare this very birth scene as peace on earth. No doubt, the Creator's inhabiting of creation puts to rest our fears that chaos and enmity will have the last word. The Creator's covenant of grace with His creation goes this far, and so this moment right here is the profoundest ontological peace the world has ever known. Sure we can sing this song and just focus on the peace it is trying to portray, but even then, what earthly peace have you ever known that was not born through tears?

And yes, certainly, the significance of this particular birth is the divinity of the child---something it might be difficult to communicate artistically without halos and tearless babies. I get that, and as I scoured images of "Madonna With Child" this week I realized as I looked in vain for an "unsettled" baby Jesus that perhaps it was more respectful not to depict him this way. That said, its not like the song avoids singing about it. It actually says "no crying he makes"--- and theologically this is tantamount to either misleading folly or sheer doceticism (rejected by early church teachers as the notion that Jesus was fully divine but took human appearance as a ruse).

The very reason this is peace on earth is that God has come. He has not just scratched the surface of humanity, but come all the way into it, taking to himself our suffering, our pain, our sin and our death. Without this, God is merely a visitor: There is no seizing of humanity in its finite and fallen condition in order to reconcile it to God. God could have done that if He so choose, but that's not what Christmas celebrates.

Furthermore, if what does set this birth apart is the child's divinity, let's remember that if we depict him as aloof to our pain and our plight we are exalting not the God revealed in Christ but a false god of our own making. This God, the Christmas God, is the God who humbles himself. This very incarnation, so starkly absurd to our proud human sensibilities, is exactly the type of condescending grace that is so becoming of the eternally self-giving Son of God; not to mention his sending Father and the Spirit who brings Him to the world.

This is definitely something worth singing peace-riddled songs about. Like the one our church has been singing this year called "Immanuel", by Stuart Townend. It is wonderful. It begins:

From the squalor of a borrowed stable
By the Spirit and a virgin's faith
To the anguish and the shame of scandal
Came the Savior of the human race
But the skies were filled
With the praise of heav'n
Shepherds listen as the angels tell
Of the gift of God come down to man
At the dawning of Immanuel

King of heaven now the friend of sinners
Humble servant in the Father's hands
Filled with power and the Holy Spirit
Filled with mercy for the broken man
Yes He walked my road and He felt my pain
Joys and sorrows that I know so well
Yet His righteous steps give me hope again
I will follow my Immanuel


Dale Harris said...

amen. somehow, preaching through the christmas season for the first time, I feel like I'm just starting to "understand" christmas for the first time this year. thanks for this post Jon. I hate that the phrase "true meaning of Christmas" itself has lost its meaning. (most people equate it w/ family, love or the kind of hollow peace you've described so well here). More and more I feel that the church desperately needs to discover the true meaning of the true meaning of christmas again.

posts like this help.

Jon Coutts said...

i used to be the meaning, then the true meaning, now the true of the true. Next I think we go back to "meaning".

I know what you mean about preaching through advent. nothing quite like having to figure out what to say, going to the word, thinking you know what you'll find, and having it speak on its own.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

"we are exalting not the God revealed in Christ but a false god of our own making"

I always do that with my heroes. Suddenly I wake up and realize, "all these people I admire are just like me." Like I'm choosing my heroes because their values are close enough to mine that I don't have to change myself based on what I admire in them.

Like, no wonder I don't admire vegetarians -THAT would be way too hard to emulate.

This was a great post. You're constantly taking swipes at the sacred cows, which is great.

On some level though, it's just a nice song.

But yes, the Jesus in 'Away in a Manger' looks like he's 99% God and 1% man. It seems to me he's usually portrayed that way. When I used to hear that Jesus understood what I was going through, I often found that hard to believe. Christ's life, as it was generally described in Church, never seemed much like mine. His struggles always seemed like such pious struggles. His feet may have touched the earth, but only just barely.