I’m one of those Christians who gets cranky about questionable theology found in beloved hymns, songs, and carols. One of the lines that has provoked my grumpiness is from the favorite Christmas carol, “Away in a Manger.” The second verse proclaims, “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” This line bugs me. Let me explain why.
There is nothing in the biblical account of the birth of Jesus that reveals any lack of crying. But what we do know from Scripture is that Jesus was fully human. He wasn’t some super baby flown in from a distant planet. So, consider for a moment, if a real newborn infant were to be awakened by some noisy cows, what are the odds that this baby wouldn’t cry? Pretty close to zero, right? The portrayal of a non-crying baby Jesus is romantic bordering on heretical. (One of the earliest heresies, called Docetism, alleged that Jesus was not truly human, but only appeared to be so. A docetic baby Jesus wouldn’t cry when awakened by lowing cattle. A real baby Jesus almost certainly would.)
Yes, I acknowledge that a fully human Jesus could have been miraculously kept from crying. I’ve known a lot of parents who would appreciate that miracle in their own families! But, again, Scripture doesn’t give us any reason to believe that this was true in the case of Jesus. And so, I used to argue, “Give me a squalling baby Jesus and out with bad theology of ‘Away in a Manger’.”
Until Christmas 1994 . . . when a couple of miracles challenged my theological scruples.
In 1994, I was the senior pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. I was also the father of two young children. Nathan was just two years old. Kara was just under two months old. Linda and I cherished our children and loved being their parents. But parenting wasn’t without challenges, of course. In particular, Kara had developed an unfortunate habit of crying loudly and inconsolably every evening at around 5:00 p.m. Her crying would last about an hour and there seemed to be no remedy. Believe me, Linda and I tried everything we could think of. The doctor promised that she would grow out of it, in time. (Easy for him to say with his grown children!)
Meanwhile, the folks at church were excited because they envisioned featuring Kara, Linda, and me as the holy family in the annual children’s Christmas pageant at 5:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Though I protested that Kara would probably be screaming her head off just in time for our reverent performance, my colleagues in the children’s ministry were not dissuaded. They wanted to see their pastor dressed up like Joseph, with his new baby playing the role of Jesus, even though she was a girl.
Linda shared my hesitation, knowing all too well Kara’s 5:00 p.m. pattern. She envisioned a howling baby rather than the silent baby Jesus of Christmas lore. But, in the end, Linda and I capitulated. We, along with Kara, would be the holy family. And when Kara went ballistic on us, we’d quickly take her out, presumably to look for the shepherds abiding in the field or something like this.
On Christmas Eve, Kara, Linda, and I dressed in our first-century Bible land garb. Linda made sure Kara had a full stomach, in hope that this might somehow induce her to be quiet. It had never worked before, but why not try again? Finally, the time came for our big reveal. We walked slowly to our place on the platform, praying fervently that Kara would be quiet, yet prepared to deal with her when she wasn’t.
We got to our place and stood there while the Christmas story was read and enacted. Celebrative songs were sung. No, these did not include “Away in a Manger.” We didn’t want to ruin the mood with the “little Lord Jesus, loud crying she makes.”
Meanwhile, Kara was strangely quiet, uncharacteristically peaceful. She wasn’t sleeping, but seemed happy to be held by her mother and enjoy her moment in the spotlight. She remained in this blissful state for at least fifteen minutes, making not a sound. Not one peep.
After the service, many worshippers complemented Kara on how perfectly quiet she was. A couple of them said that Linda and I must be amazing parents. I’m not sure they believed us when we said that, usually, Kara would be crying madly at this time of day.
On the way home, Linda and I shared our amazement about what had just happened. It felt to us like a genuine miracle, like an extra bit of grace given so that our Christmas service could focus on the birth of Jesus and not the yelping of our daughter. Linda and I agreed that we might try playing the holy family every night if it would help Kara stop crying.
But here’s the thing. After Christmas Eve, Kara never again cried in the evening. Oh, I’m sure there were peeps here and there, but after playing the baby Jesus in the church pageant, Kara was fully and permanently cured of her crying fits.
I wondered at the time if God was graciously, mercifully playing a little joke on me. Stopping Kara’s evening crying was certainly a generous divine gift, one I gladly received. But I wondered if God was also bringing me down a couple of pegs in my theological intransigence. I needed to acknowledge that if the Heavenly Father wanted the little Lord Jesus to be quiet, he certainly had the ability and the authority to make this happen. My theology of Jesus’s full humanity wasn’t wrong. But I had minimized both the sovereignty and mercy of God. Maybe God quieted the fully human baby Jesus so his exhausted mother and father could get a few minutes of badly needed sleep. After all, it’s tough get the rest you need when sleeping in a barn with a bunch of lowing cattle.
If my account of Kara’s unexpected silence doesn’t convince you that something miraculous was happening on Christmas Eve 1994, just wait until I tell you what happened on Christmas morning. Stay tuned!