Monday, January 2, 2012

away in a manger


May my words be in the Name of the Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit – Amen.

I begin of course, by wishing you happy New Year again! Our reading begins with the shepherds going to visit the child in the manager, and I was trying to work out how many times over the Christmas period I had heard that favourite hymn 'away in a manger'

4 parish carol services, 3 school services, a couple of times at assembly, the crib service … not to mention the Christmas day services and all the times on the radio …

the hymn came in as the joint favourite Christmas carol of all time in a recent poll … and has often been attributed to Martin Luther … which, sad to relate is not true … the first two verses seem to have been written around 1885 and first appeared in a book of Lutheran children's hymns … for some reason, this book stated it was a hymn that Luther used to sing to his own children, but this statement has no basis in fact: the hymn does not appear in any of his writings, and may have more to do with marketing as this was around the 400th anniversary of Luther's birth. The third verse appears to have been added in the mid 1890's by a man called Charles Gabriel …

fond of the hymn though I am, one line always troubles me a little: the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little lord Jesus, no crying he make …

Why no crying he makes? Babies cry don't they? Today is the feast of the circumcision of our lord … I remember one of the priest talking to us about that when I was at school … it was Fr Roderick, a very nice Capuchin friar, and what he had to say about the circumcision has always stuck in my memory: he said that when he was 8 day's old, the little baby Jesus must have cried a great deal …

And I think that that is something that is very important to remember … the Christ child wasn't some plaster figure lying in some anti-septic straw under electric lights in a romanticised stable in a centrally heated church … he was a flesh and blood human being, a real baby, lying in dusty hay in a stable filled with the smell of cows and sheep – with light and heat coming from a small flickering fire …

and just like any baby that's just been woken, he probably cried … because the baby that the angels announced, and the shepherds came to see, while he was the Son of God, was also the Son of Mary … he was fully God, but he was fully Man … which is what we need him to be … we need him to understand what it is like to cry when you're scared, to be afraid of the dark, to understand what it is like to be cold and hungry … to be alone and uncomfortable …

we need a baby Jesus who cried in the manger when the cattle frightened him, when he wanted to be held by his mother, or when he needed to be fed or changed … because we know a baby Jesus like that grew up to have all the human experiences that we did … and so he can understand what it is like for us to go about our daily lives, afraid for the future, sad when loved ones dies, worried when work isn't coming in and we're not sure how we are going to manage or cope … anything we can say about our lives, and what is like to live it, we can be sure that there was some comparable experience in Jesus' life, because we can be sure there was a comparable experience in any human life, and Jesus' life was most certainly a human life … 

don't get me wrong … Away in a manger is one of my favourite hymns … and I'll sing it again next year … and I'll include it in all the carol services and Christmas services that I'm organising not just because it is a much loved favourite, but because it is a genuinely beautiful hymn … but the image it portrays of the baby who doesn't cry owes more to the Victorian ideal that children should be seen and not heard & a quiet child is a good child than it does to any thing to be found in scripture or Christian tradition … a child that is crying isn't bad … it is simply a child … which is what Jesus was … and as we turn our back on the old year and begin the new I pray that we may all remember the profound humanity of Jesus … and take hope for the new year from that & for all the years to come. Amen.

Sermon notes: 1 January 2012 (Feast of the Naming & Circumcision of Jesus)

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