Monday, January 6, 2014

Why I Dislike "Away in a Manager," an Epiphany Special.

I know that Christmas was over a week ago, but it is technically the last day of the Christmas season. It is Epiphany so this is fairly relevant.

I have been mulling over whether or not I should do a Christmas themed post for quite some time now.  When I finally decided to make one I had way too many options, and my indecisiveness took over.  I could have written any traditionally themed post or maybe something a little edgy but actually isn't because it is overdone.  I almost wrote a piece defending the inn keeper, but I found out that has already been successfully done.  "Let It Snow," was begging to be made fun of, but I figured that could wait until after Christmas, because it is technically a seasonal song not a Christmas carol.  Then I heard "Away in a Manger" and decided to write about how much I hate it.  Actually, how much I dislike the song, because hate is a bit too strong.  In the words of Henry Francis, "I hate Nazis."


I have disliked "Away in a Manager" for at least 18 years.  My earliest memory of despising the song is from Sunday school when I would have been about 4 years old.  Admittedly back then I did not have a good reason for disliking it.  My main reasons were that a girl named Megan and few other kids kept requesting it even when it had already gotten really old, and the music is nowhere near as exciting as the music to "Joy to the World," "Angels We Have Heard on High," and the like.  Simple reasons, I know, but now that I am older I have deeper reasons for not liking this perennial favorite.


Before we go any further I figured I better put down the lyrics for everyone to read.

Away in a manger, No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus, Laid down His sweet head
The stars in the bright sky,Looked down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus,Asleep on the hay
The cattle are lowing,The poor Baby wakes
But little Lord Jesus, No crying He makes
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, Look down from the sky
And stay by my side, “Til 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 take us to heaven, To live with Thee there

I really have two issues with the song: it is borderline heretical and sickeningly sentimental.


The line, "But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes," is quite problematic.  At its best it means that Jesus wasn't crying which is problematic for newborns; at its worst it is docetic.  It seems to suggest that Jesus is only appearing to be a baby, because a real baby would be crying its head off.  The funny thing is that docetism, along with Arianism, was rejected by the First Council of Nicaea, the same council in which Santa knocked out a heretic.  So now we have a popular Christmas song that promotes a heresy on a holiday closely associated with a man who got so worked up in his defense of orthodoxy that he felt the need to physically assault a heretic.


The other issue is that the song focuses on the warm fuzzy feelings that sweet baby Jesus gives us.  My issue with that is that it strives to keep Jesus in the manger.  It is a very popular thing to do, implicitly if not explicitly, especially in popular American Christianity.  I don't know if that is what Will Ferrell was trying to get at in Talladega Nights, but this scene is a great parody of how many view Jesus.

In his book Godric Frederick Buechner gets at the reason why we prefer to keep Jesus in the manager.  The book is a retelling of the life of Saint Godric of Finchale.  At one point Godric is recounting the time he attended Christmas Mass at Durham.

"An easy thing it is to love a babe.  A babe asks nothing, never chides.  A babe is fair to see.  A babe is hope for better things to come.  All this and more.  But babes grow into men at last.  That's where it turns a bitter brew.  'He has no form or comeliness,' Isaiah says.  'No beauty that we should desire him.  A man of sorrows we despise."  Christ minds us to be good, to feed his sheep, take up our cross and follow him with Hell's hot fires if we fail.  All this and more our Savior bids when he becomes a man, and to a man we say him nay.  Thus when the Bishop tenders me with his own hands Christ's flesh and blood, I slobber them with tears"  (124).

We can make a baby what we want it to be.  All our ideas and dreams can be forced on a baby, but a man can talk back.  Examples abound of parents having this happen with their children.  It is the same with how we look at the Christ child.

The desire to keep Jesus in our mind as a cute baby in an adorably dumpy manager is a desire to make Jesus palatable.  Have a white American Jesus, a Jesus that would've been bros with Che Guevera, or any other variation starts with confining Christ to the crib and then moves to looking at some of the things the man said or did while ignoring other things that he did.  It is is similar to when a parent praises their teenager for doing something they approve of and then saying to the other parent, "He is your son," when the kid does something his parents disapprove.

But even our attempts to make Jesus feel safe by looking at just the baby fail.  The Incarnation is one of the most mind boggling doctrines taught and held by Christians.  The shear metaphysical divide that God had to cross is ridiculous and incomprehensible; it scandalizes the intellect.  I don't know about anyone else, but it makes me feel uncomfortable, awe inspired but uncomfortable, when I think about it.  We then have to start asking questions like:

"How can the Almighty be confined in the form of a man nonetheless a baby?"
"What does the kenosis mean exactly?"

These questions then lead to ones that are a bit more touchy for some:

"Did Jesus ever get a math problem wrong?"
"Did He have a libido?" (If we are consistent and say with the Church Fathers that which is not assumed cannot be redeemed then we have to say that Christ had a sex drive.)
"If God is willing to undertake the ultimate work of contextualization what does that mean for my desire to force, implicitly or explicitly, my culturally biased forms of Christian worship/practice onto other people groups?"


The last question is extremely relevant for today, Epiphany.  This holiday celebrates Jesus' visitation by the Three Wise Men and the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. God desires to be worshiped by all nations which means He desires to be worshiped in a variety of tongues and ways, and when we make out our brand of Jesus to be the only Jesus we have trouble sharing the Gospel cross-culturally.   However, if Jesus was going to stay confined to one culture it would have been the Jewish culture of His day, but he did not even stay confined to that culture.  Instead He took the place where it would have been the easiest for us to put Him in a box and turns it into the very place that He begins subverting our perceptions of Him by having the Wise Men worship Him.

That is why I dislike Away in a Manager.