Can you believe it is less than three weeks from Christmas? I have to confess to you that I love this time of year, and I love holiday music. But I am also concerned about the way lots of Christmas carols describe the birth of Jesus. My concern is not really about the trappings of Christmas per se. What troubles me the most is the almost fairy-tale quality of many of the Christmas carols, the unrealistic way they describe the birth of Jesus. The problem is that many Christmas carols paint such a rosy picture of Jesus’ birth, a scene of unrelenting joy and peace and beauty, that the story becomes too unrealistic, totally irrelevant for a world that is filled with pain and conflict and evil. When that happens, the miracle of the incarnation can easily be relegated to the same bookshelf as Mother Goose and the powerful message of the coming of Jesus is muted.
Here’s an example. Look carefully at the second verse of Away in the Manger -
The cattle are lowingThe poor Baby wakesBut little Lord JesusNo crying He makes
“No crying He makes.” This song expects us to believe that having been stirred awake by the lowing of the cattle, the infant Jesus did not cry.
I understand that poetic license plays a role in all lyrics. My guess is that the point of this line in “Away in the Manger” is that even though the circumstances of Jesus’ birth were less than ideal that Jesus and His family were at peace. But to say that the baby Jesus didn’t cry to is to stretch the limits of poetic license to the breaking point. In the first place, the biblical text nowhere says this. And in the second place, how realistic is it to think that Jesus wouldn’t cry? Babies cry. Jesus was a baby. Jesus would have cried and done all of the other things that babies do in the real world.
Yet some Christians through the centuries have been uneasy with the full implications of the humanity of the baby Jesus. One 4th century writer said this:
Of Him then His mother's burden was light, the birth immaculate, the delivery without pain, the nativity without defilement, neither beginning from wanton desire, nor brought to pass with sorrow. For as she who by her guilt engrafted death into our nature, was condemned to bring forth in trouble, it was meet that she who brought life into the world should accomplish her delivery with joy." (St Gregory of Nyssa, Homily on the Nativity)
We would agree that Mary was a virgin and that the birth of Jesus was miraculous. But no Scripture suggests Mary’s delivery was pain free. This compulsion to “clean up” the story of Jesus’ birth is at the root of such lyrics as “no crying he makes.”
It is also typical of the artistic presentations of the Nativity, inwhich the infant Jesus is beautiful, crowned with a halo. The stable is clean, and the animals look as well groomed as dogs preparing for the Westminster dog show! This highly sanitized version of the story of Jesus is in stark contrast to the real world in which childbirth is painful and bloody and dangerous. In the real world stables are smelly and dirty. And in the real world newborn babies are blotchy and don’t arrive with glowing cylinders around their head!
And of course, in the real world, little babies cry. That is the insidious danger of lyrics like “no crying He makes.” Babies that don’t cry are for the world of make-believe, not the world that any of us live in, a world that is dirty and dangerous and often filled with tears. The gospel story needs to be more real for all of us, not less real.
After all, the adult Jesus certainly did cry. According to Luke 19:41-44, Jesus wept as He approached Jerusalem the final time and saw with prophetic vision the awful destruction that awaited the city. In John 11:35, Jesus wept at the tomb of His beloved friend, Lazarus. And the writer of Hebrews says that Jesus offered up prayers “with loud cries and tears” as He contemplated the cross in Gethsemane (Hebrews 5:7-8).
The real Jesus cried, because in the real world sinful people reap tragic, devastating consequences for their actions. Jesus cried because in the real world loved ones suffer and die. And Jesus cried because in the real world doing the will of God rather than your own requires painful, heartbreaking sacrifices.
Uninspired songs might have the tendency to diminish Jesus’ full humanity, but the inspired song of Isaiah 53 did not. The third verse of that song describes Jesus as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). I am glad my Savior cries, because it means He cares. He cares for me when I am heartbroken with grief. He cares for me when I wander way from Him. He cares for me when I face crisis and distress. And because He cried and because He cares, I can go to him with confidence that as I pray through my tears He hears me and knows exactly what I am going through (Hebrews 4:14-16).