Christmas: the one time of the year that most churches actually sing good hymns! Some of our traditional Christmas hymns really are quite profound, the queen of them all being “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.”
Yet some Christmas hymns are far from perfect. Others have addressed the problems with some of these hymns. One hymn that often gets marginalized is “Away in a Manger.” Usually critics target the line “No crying he makes,” insisting that such a phrase belittles the humanity of the Christ child. Could be, but it could just as easily be interpreted as saying, well, Jesus didn’t happen to be crying just then. Some newborn infants just don’t cry very much.
Others, however, will point out that the hymn just doesn’t contain a whole lot of doctrine. True, it’s mostly a narrative and doesn’t contain all of the rich Christology found in hymns like “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.”
Yet, I do believe that the hymn, although admittedly simple, does say some things quite profound:
First, the simple narrative, referencing the stars and the cattle and so forth, clearly affirms the historical reality of the incarnation. This is an important and profound doctrine, for without the incarnation there is no atonement for sin.
Second, the beautiful poetic narrative captures the imagination and causes us to wonder at the night of our Savior’s birth.
Third, the hymn does not simply revel sentimentally in the cuddly infant, but affirms his deity and lordship by expressing dependance upon and trust in the God wrapped in delicate human flesh.
Finally, while not articulating all that the gospel is (a good hymn does not have to fully express every facit of the gospel to be good), the text does clearly affirm that Jesus is the only way to “fit us for heaven,” thus leading the singer to ask, “How?”
Simple does not have to be trivial, and simple does not have to be bad. With “Away in the Manger,” I believe we have a hymn that is simple, yet profoundly good in its simplicity.