A Way in a Manger

 Something I wrote in 2011 for a now defunct site. Gets at how the theology we sometimes want, even in Christmas, isn’t really the theology we need. In this 2020 Christmas, we need a theology of hope within the messiness.  

Do you know (well of course you know) the old hymn Away in a Manger? Here are the words:

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

This is a popular carol to be sure, one of the most popular. The sentiment is nice, indeed steering pretty much into being sentimental, emphasizing the peace of the moment, the quiet, the contented, inviting us into this still moment so as to still our hearts, encouraging us to imagine ourselves in this most pastoral of scenes so as to renew our faith in the God who cares for us and will take us, as well, to the place of peace. Lovely.

And yet… I wonder about it a little bit, and I wonder about it in a way that reflects some of my thoughts on so much of our Christmas liturgies and celebrations.

We’re docetic. This carol is docetic.

Now, before you get offended, let me tell you more exactly how you should be offended, since I basically called us heretics. There were two main ways in which the early Church erred in their thinking about Jesus.

There were those who tended to see him only as this guy, this great guy mind you, but just a guy, with a special message and work that should inspire us.

On the other side, there were those who really emphasized the fact Jesus was God, and the conceptions of God being what they were they couldn’t see how this Jesus was really a real human.

So, they danced around the idea of how this Jesus appeared in human form, but didn’t really cavort with real flesh, blood, or any of the other trappings of physical life. This latter approach was called docetism.

Now, we’ll confess that’s wrong. The incarnation is in our creeds, after all. We confess Jesus was both this guy and this God, and would heartily argue with someone who suggested anything different.

And yet, like with this carol, our worship and liturgy is much better about emphasizing the glory of Christ’s divinity than the earthiness of Christ’s humanity.

We want to be lifted up, lifted away, given space within God’s throne room, transported out of our present troubles and be promised that this impassive savior will deliver us to live in a safe, protected, always still, paradise.

The baby wakes, but the baby doesn’t cry.

That’s what we want all our life to be like. All our problems would appear, but not disturb us in any way. Just like the little Lord Jesus.

Only that’s almost certainly not how it was. We worship in a way that seems like we’re honoring God, but in a way that so often dismisses the real glory of what happened. We want to protect God, to keep Jesus safe, to honor him and make up stories that are more impressive. Sort of like what some in the early church did with the gnostic infancy stories.

That’s not really honoring God, though, is it?

The reality of the Christmas story is not that it was this moment of perfection, of stillness, of beauty and life and constrained adoration. The reality of Christmas was that everything was going wrong. Joseph was ordered by a hated ruler to travel at most inconvenient time. His wife was very pregnant.

The roads were dangerous, the weather probably was bad, and in general they were pulled away from their life. One thing went wrong after another. They finally got to the town of Bethlehem, but they couldn’t find a place to stay.

We know this story, but think about it again, now. Think about how you might feel if you had to travel during the Christmas season, the airports shut down, and all the local hotels were booked.

Think about how you feel when you go to the store, to many stores, and can’t find that thing—that ingredient or that perfect present—no matter where you go. Think about the frustrations that come with visiting family (after all Joseph had to go to the town where his family originated).

We like to reflect on peace and stillness, and get annoyed with all the frustrations pulling us away from our ‘proper’ religious focus. Only, it’s precisely with those frustrations that we can understand the fullness, the glory, of the incarnation. God isn’t this otherworldly being, away from us, distant from us, separated.

Jesus wasn’t this still, little child in this nicely arranged nativity scene—put the shepherds over there, and Mary and Joseph standing beside the small little manger, with maybe an angel or two off to the side and the wise men hovering over the manger right behind Mary and Joseph.

The nativity was messy.

It was a barn and a stable.

Birth is messy. Travel is messy.

It’s all messy and it’s all frustrating and it’s the sort of thing that makes a person confused and angry about why everything seems to be going wrong, the best laid plans going awry no matter how much we try to get things going right.

To this, God entered into this world. Into this, was Jesus born.

In the midst of the messiness and frustration and distraction, God became a human, participating with us so as to restore us.

We want to ignore the trappings of real life when we create our Christmas worship. Only that’s precisely what God didn’t want to ignore.

It came to pass in the midst of messiness. That’s the way of God’s work with humanity. It does not lift us out and away, it leads us through the times of wilderness and struggle, forming us and shaping us, creating us anew.

The earliest Christians called their faith The Way, and that’s because it was precisely in the midst of struggles and frustrations that Christ gave a new way of living, one that resonates the work of God even, and especially, when things just don’t seem to be going right.

And that’s precisely the place where God enters in, joining with us, bringing life and hope.

When it is messy, when it is loud, when everything seems out of hand, God is with us, incarnated among us, joining together in our struggles right when they seem the most overwhelming.

We don’t ignore the struggles. We look for the God who became a baby in the midst of a messy, awkward, frustrating manger. Because we know this incarnation means all things are made new.

And, no doubt, that little Lord Jesus cried. Because that’s what babies do.

Thanks be to God.

Amy re-wrote the lyrics to this carol that I think better fits the truth and our situations.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed
The little Lord Jesus lays down His sweet head
Dirty and smelly, the family of three
Exhausted from labor and from their journey

The cattle are noisy, the poor baby wakes
Mary, still bloody, no pain meds she takes
She swaddles him up in the clothes that they brought
And feeds and burps him like Elizabeth taught

The rest of the town sleeps in homes and hotels
Ignorant of wonders the angel foretells
The shepherds arrive in amazement and joy
The last in the culture are first to the boy

The Way in a manger, the Truth and the Life
He enters right into the mess and the strife
A crib laid with diamonds and gold He deserved
He came to serve others, not to be served

Merry Christmas and Happy Long-Awaited New Year!

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