Saturday, December 23: Away In a Manger

Saturday, December 23: Away In a Manger

For what is supposed to be an endearing children’s Christmas carol, Away in a Manger certainly has a complex and conflicted “back story”! Many of us grew up with hymnals (both Sunday School and church) which called it “Luther’s Cradle Hymn.” Poor Brother Martin gets blamed for many things not of his doing – and he is certainly innocent of this one: Neither this hymn nor anything remotely like it appears anywhere in Luther’s extensive works. Actually, the earliest trace of Away in a Manger is in the 1880s in Pennsylvania.

A marvelous article (and a product of mind-boggling scholarship) is “Not So Far Away in a Manger,” in Music Library Association Notes for December, 1945, by Richard S. Hill. He identifies 41 (!) different tunes which have been associated with this simple text and shares the conclusions of his extensive research into the history of the text. The only German text he was able to find was in a little collection published in 1934 in Missouri. He concludes: “Although Luther himself had nothing to do with the carol, the colonies of German Lutherans in Pennsylvania almost certainly did.”

The earliest publication was in the Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families, which was produced by one of our predecessor Church bodies (Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America) at Philadelphia in 1885. There are two anonymous stanzas, set to the tune St. Kilda by J. E. Clark. Then the fun begins: The second appearance of the text is in J. R. Murray’s Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lassies (Cincinnati, 1887). Now it appears with the familiar tune (see LBW-67) with the initials “J.R.M.” Murray was undoubtedly the composer of the tune, but he couldn’t resist “gilding the lily”: Here Away in a Manger is headed “Luther’s Cradle Hymn. Composed by Martin Luther for his children, and still sung by German mothers to their little ones.” Sheer audacious invention! But the genie was out of the bottle and still wanders the globe spreading this misinformation.

The third stanza, also anonymous, first appeared in Charles H. Gabriel’s Vineyard Songs of 1892; Gabriel was a prolific and very popular composer of Gospel songs. Modern hymnals have mostly dropped Luther’s name but call the tune by the hymn name Away in a Manger.

With 41 tunes to choose from, it is hardly surprising that more than one still has modern partisans. An alternate tune first appeared in a seven-song pamphlet Around the World with Christmas: A Christmas Exercise (Cincinnati, 1895), given there as representing “The German Fatherland.” This muddied the waters still further and added a new layer of nonsense for future scholars to have to excavate and discard. The 1895 tune appears in modern hymnals using the name Cradle Hymn or Cradle Song – and so it appears at WOV-644.

So what are we to make of this pious, popular, charming, and error-filled children’s carol? I stumble at the very first word: “Away.” Why away? Away from what? “Asleep in a manger” would have worked every bit as well. Is this an oblique reference to the Nazarene couple and their baby in far-off Bethlehem? Or is it an existential reference to estrangement? If the first verse is truly about the manger, no crib for his bed, and laying down his sweet head, I’d go with “Asleep in the manger” every time. A sweet, sentimental picture is painted in verse 1 – except for that disruptive first word. So they are “away.” This isn’t a very comfortable place, despite the pretty descriptions which closely follow.

But if verse 1 is philosophically confusing, verse 2 is simply wrong – and dangerous. Here, in this manger, we have a newborn babe. And “no crying he makes”???? Clearly, this is counter-factual and thus an error. More critically, a very nasty old serpent, the Docetic Heresy, is raising its ugly head. Docetism, from a Greek word which usually furnishes words translated as apparition or phantom, is the doctrine that the phenomenon of Christ, his historical and bodily existence, and above all the human form of Jesus, was a mere resemblance without any true reality. Broadly, it is taken as the belief that Jesus only seemed to be human – that His human form was an illusion. This heresy was strongly condemned by the First Council of Nicæa in A.D. 325 and is since regarded as heresy by all principal Christian churches, east and west (i.e. Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic). This is neither trivial nor a minor pedantic quibble. Any hint that Jesus was not fully human strikes at the heart of the Christian message: That God Himself took on human form – fully human form; he could stub his toe and hurt; he could experience injury in the carpenter’s shop; eventually he could suffer, really suffer on that cross. That was not illusion, that was not God “pretending”; that was a real man, suffering and dying on that cross.

To suggest otherwise is to debase our faith, to deny a loving and caring God, and to align ourselves with the idiots who think the Resurrection is a pious fraud.

After all that, the fact that the third verse is a charming, pious little prayer is both reassuring and anti-climactic. But it will certainly do for a prayer that we need just now:

Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask you to stay
close by me forever and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in your tender care
and fit us for heaven, to live with you there.

Barry Prince