One of the most beloved Christmas carols sung each year is the 19th-century anonymous verse set to music by James R. Murray (1841-1906), “Away in a Manger.”
Away in a manger,
No crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus
Lay down His sweet head;
The stars in the sky
Look 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 cradle
Till morning is nigh.
Perhaps you, like me, grew up singing this song by Christmas Eve candlelight. It was wondrously comforting and mysteriously engaging for me as a child. One particular phrase always caught my attention: “No crying he makes.” I knew babies cried. They cried when they were hungry, wet or uncomfortable. They cried when they needed a human touch or felt ignored. One could even say babies acted selfishly, simply responding audibly to their felt needs with no mature understanding that parents were sleeping, busy or exhausted.
But Jesus, according to this verse, did not cry when he awakened. Hmmm. Was that because he was really God only disguised as a baby? Was his baby-ness pretend? The carol even refers to the infant as the “little Lord.” Was he too holy to disturb his parents when he wanted something? Or, did his diaper need changing? Did he feed at Mary’s breast and later from Joseph’s table or did he grow in stature (Luke 2:52) by some divine magic?
“Some students had a very difficult time accepting that Jesus was a human being with whom we could identify.”
Teaching New Testament Survey to undergraduates for a number of years, I always dealt with the humanness of Jesus. Some students had a very difficult time accepting that Jesus was a human being with whom we could identify.
I never will forget the non-traditional older student who approached me after all others had left the classroom and with a lowered voice asked me if I thought Jesus ever went to the bathroom. I answered, “Well, of course, he ate food, didn’t he? That’s the way God created human bodies to work.”
“Oh, no!” he replied. “I could never imagine my Lord doing that!” Then he concluded, “Whenever the urge arose, I think he just snapped his fingers and took care of it!”
I wonder if “Away in a Manger” imprints the impression on young, innocent minds that Jesus didn’t cry because he was divine. He was different than all of us. He was a perfect baby, just like the Bible says he was a perfect man, “tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Maybe he didn’t cry because he couldn’t cry? It was contrary to his divine nature.
I also grew up hearing the inexplicable affirmation that Jesus was “100% human and 100% divine.” I’m guessing you have heard that, too. Since elementary school math lessons, I have known this formula equals 200%, and I have known nothing is 200% anything, even if we popularly talk about someone giving 110% on the job or athletic field. That’s just exaggeration.
So, I wondered, as a child, if Jesus was really 50% human and 50% divine. That seemed to make more sense — equally human and divine, yet still mathematically possible and logically sensible.
“I wondered, as a child, if Jesus was really 50% human and 50% divine.”
But as I think about my doubting students, it occurs to me they think of the ratio describing Jesus’ nature as more like 80%-20% or 90%-10%. They are confident — and likely have been encouraged to believe — that Jesus was much more divine than human.
One way to think about the poetic assertion, “No crying he makes,” is to suggest that it is a heresy. It denies the very humanness of baby Jesus. That was the heresy of Docetism, the second- and third-century Gnostic belief, after Marcion, that Jesus did not have a real human body but only appeared, phantasm-like, to be flesh and blood.
But there is another way to interpret the phrase. What if Jesus didn’t cry when he awakened because he had the full attention of Mary or Joseph? What if their cuddling, feeding, changing, holding, kissing, comforting, nestling and rocking were exactly the human involvement in his life he needed at that time? He did not cry because his parents were anticipating his needs even before he expressed them and participating actively with him in his life.
Let me be clear: I believe Jesus did cry at times when he wanted to be held, fed, changed or touched — but Mary or Joseph were preoccupied with something else. That is the natural way babies signal their needs. But, if “no crying he makes” upon awakening were a literal observation, it might have been because his parents were actually present to and for him.
A number of times in the Gospels, Jesus relies upon others to help him when perhaps he could have just snapped his fingers and performed a miracle. He relies upon the disciples to row the boat on the Sea of Galilee while he rests. He wants them to search the crowd on the mountainside and look for any lunches that can be shared. He sends them into Sychar for food while he waits by the well and asks a Samaritan woman who comes to draw water for a drink. He tells the neighbors of resuscitated Lazarus to unloose him from his grave bindings. He has the disciples secure a donkey for him to ride into Jerusalem. He instructed them to arrange for the upper room and the Passover Meal. He implores them to stay awake in the garden and to pray with and for him in his hour of trial. He needs Simon of Cyrene to carry his cross to the place of his execution. He invites the Beloved Disciple, from the cross, to assume the care of his widowed mother.
Could it be that Jesus wanted his disciples — and us — to participate in his work and to learn the lesson that “Christ-ians” are to help others?
Sometimes church friends say there is a lot of theology in the words of familiar, classic hymns. Maybe, therefore, the phrase “No crying he makes” has some profound theology to teach us.
I suggest it is not teaching us, or our children, that Jesus could not cry as a baby because he was divine. Instead, it is teaching us Jesus was so loved, so noticed, so attended to, so helped that he awakened without crying because Mary and Joseph were there for him, anticipating his needs and meeting them.
There are a couple of implications of this interpretation.
“First, Jesus wants our help.”
First, Jesus wants our help, just as he needed the help of friends and family when he was a human living among us. Maybe we think of Jesus as 80% or 90% omnipotent and self-sufficient and only 20% or 10% desiring and depending upon our partnering in his work.
Some people perhaps wonder why Jesus doesn’t simply snap his divine fingers and end the wars in Ukraine or Gaza or feed the starving people experiencing famine in the Congo or shut down human trafficking and the drug cartels. The truth, however, is that Jesus relies on human instruments to do his good work. We are the ones who must strive to end the killing, address world hunger and stop evil ways of abusing God’s children and earning profit.
Second, I believe the phrase in the beloved Christmas carol assures us Jesus understands us when we cry. He knows our pain. He not only “in every respect has been tempted as we are” but also is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15). He wept over the sin of the city of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-42). He wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35). He was so anguished in the Garden of Gethsemane that his sweat oozed out from his pores like drops of blood — a physical condition known as “hematohidrosis”
There is no condition of sorrow or pain we can experience we must undergo alone. Jesus is always ready to be alongside us, helping to shoulder the hurt, sharing the load.
The last verse of “Away in a Manger” is this:
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 fit us for heaven
To live with thee there
Jesus wants to stay near us. Not only when we are “dear children,” but “forever.” He will be close to us in response to our prayers. He will tenderly care for us when we cry.
As beautiful as the image of the precious baby boy Jesus is, Jesus did not remain a human infant or child. He grew up — experiencing pressures, problems, temptations and trials we can only imagine. And because he did, he is not surprised by adult-sized hurts we encounter.
We don’t need to imitate the divine baby Jesus who didn’t cry but relax in the knowledge that the human adult Jesus cried when his heart hurt.
And so can we.
Rob Sellers is professor of theology and missions emeritus at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas. He is a past chair of the board of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. He and his wife, Janie, served a quarter century as missionary teachers in Indonesia. They have two children and five grandchildren.