It’s the time of year for carol singing. Including Away In A Manger. That also makes it time for someone, somewhere, to claim that this old song is heretical. Perhaps it will be a major article on one of the big Christian websites, or perhaps just in a few scattered sermons. But the claim will appear.
In reality, however, it’s the time of year that shows how poorly we read poetry, in general.
What’s the claim? In short, folks pick up the line about Jesus as a baby waking up, but not crying.
The cattle are lowing.
The baby awakes.
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes.
The argument is that this shows Jesus as not quite human. He doesn’t even cry! The technical terminology then thrown around is – “It’s a Docetic song.” Docetism being the heresy – a serious one! – that Jesus only appeared to be human.
Here’s where we fail as readers of poetry. This song is not a theological treatise, nor is it a PhD thesis on the hypostatic union! It’s a gentle poem, which seems aimed at involving Children in Christmas prayer. And the section of Jesus waking up is a snapshot of a scene around the time of Jesus’ birth. It’s like a still-life, but in words, capturing a picture and a mood. The mood is peaceful. Even with babies there are moments of peace. Such moments are beautiful. What a fine way to evoke the bigger Christmas picture of peace to the world!
But there is no explicit, or even implicit, claim that Jesus was somehow beyond cries, or the other messy parts of life. It’s just a picture, a snapshot, a passing glimpse that has been usefully employed to convey one aspect of the gospel of peace. How about we declare peace upon the composer and decide not to pursue for heresy? Instead, I suggest we make the generous assumption that the wordsmith here knows the theology and used poetic forms to capture a fraction of the whole. I promise that I will keep singing, even if others smirk because ‘they know better’.