If you have ever attended a Carol Service featuring young children, whether in your own formative years or as a proud parent, it is highly likely you have heard the carol ‘Away in a Manger.’ A melody well suited to growing and uncertain young vocal chords, it is a popular choice for children’s choirs and usually ends up sounding as sweet and innocent as the baby they are singing of.
One line that has earned the disapprobation of listeners over the years however, comes in the second verse:
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes
But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes
Like a number of similar Victorian era songs, there is an undercurrent of legalistic moralism. The line in ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ captures it rather more sharply:
Christian children all must be, mild, obedient, good as he.
Now, I should say that on the whole, modelling one’s life on the example of Jesus Christ is the soundest life advice you can offer. Human error however, means that you can set an example that is not based on any kind of scriptural basis.
I have become especially aware of this over the last 11 months as I have watched my son grow from a new-born baby to a mischievous almost-toddler. He’s just on the cusp of speaking, and babbles away quite happily. Often however, he is forced to become louder and more insistent as it becomes apparent to him that mummy and daddy aren’t understanding him. Especially in his earliest days, tears were not a sign of disobedience, but the only means he had to communicate with his parents.
We forget at our peril that Jesus chose to come as an infant. While doing so was partially an expression of identifying with the lowliest of society, he could easily have achieved the same if he’d arisen in full corporeal form in some Judean slum. He’d already know the lingo, he’d associate with society’s outcasts, and he wouldn’t have any of that messy business of being potty trained.
Jesus did not choose that way. He chose to be utterly dependent upon his mother and father, doubtless to have to cry out because he needed to be fed, or because he needed changed, or even because the cattle were disturbing his sleep.
Why does this matter for Christians, and especially for Christians who serve in politics? Because we are Christ’s ambassadors; we represent him, and Jesus has sent us out, just as the Father sent him into the world. The way of the world is to be confident, powerful, self-reliant, and self-assured. The way of the Saviour is humble, strength displayed in weakness, and being willing to be vulnerable before others.
In practical terms, it may look something like this
- Jesus chose to be dependent upon others so that he could connect with them – as you serve in politics, how are you choosing to be dependent rather than self-reliant?
- Jesus had to learn the language – he didn’t arrive with everything sorted, but chose the limitation of needing to learn how to speak to his parents, and to others. How are you ensuring you’re learning the language, culture, and customs of those you are serving?
- Jesus accepted a lack of dignity – he chose to go through the indignity of having his nappy changed; of all the tumbles as he learned to walk; of accepting parental discipline from parents less perfect than himself. Are you willing to allow yourself to be undignified and imperfect, so that others might see Christ as work in you?
- Jesus was willing to be misunderstood – right from birth, Jesus allowed people to misunderstand him. Just as his parents struggled to understand if he was crying for food or crying due to tiredness, so ever since people have wrestled with his words and teachings. Jesus shows that there is no shame if you express yourself as clearly as you can, with a sincere heart, and you are not understood. You don’t need to be perfect to speak out.
The next time you hear Away in a Manger, let the song remind you that Jesus’ incarnation speaks encouragement to us today. The infant who was willing to shed all dignity and bawl his lungs off for the world he loved, is sending you out with all your own insecurities and imperfections to shine for his glory.
This post is the first of a series I hope to write over the advent season, linking traditional Christmas carols to Christian service in public life.