I’m sure most of us have played the scene in our heads one too many times: little baby Jesus, presumably Caucasian, lying in a tiny crib-esque manger comfortably padded with hay — even though the song specifically says “no crib for a bed” — while the animals, which are perfectly behaved, quietly and reverently look on. Cue the wise men, in their strange, exotic garb, and sprinkle a few angels in there — you know, the ones that look like babies with wings and white togas.
That was my impression of the nativity scene as a kid, and the popular children’s Christmas carol, “Away in a Manger” didn’t do anything to help. It seemed to perpetuate the picturesque nativity image of most of the figurine depictions in our living rooms.
But, if only for a few minutes, put aside the notions that the “manger” probably wasn’t as clean and cozy as we thought, that it probably wasn’t a silent night — have you met a baby that’s gone through its first 24 hours without crying? — or that Jesus probably wasn’t snug in a crib conveniently left in a manger.
Even though the song may seem like it only deserves a cursory glance, as it was originally published in theLittle Children's Book for Schools and Families in 1885, I purport there’s something more to the childhood classic.
I want to take a look specifically at the third stanza, which actually didn’t come about until seven years after the original song was printed, and point out two things.
“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 take us to Heaven to live with Thee there”
First, it’s funny that the title emphasizes the place of Jesus’ birth and the fact that it was away from the comfort of an inn while this stanza, or prayer, begins by asking Jesus to be near us. And, of course, God is drawing near to us by taking on human flesh — not in the comfort of a hospital or even by skipping the whole baby thing, but as a helpless newborn child born in the muck of a manger.
And even though that baby grew up, was crucified, then resurrected, and eventually ascended into heaven, he still won’t go away. As Jesus says in Matthew 28:20, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” There’s also that whole Holy Spirit thing too.
Secondly, the third line asks Jesus to bless all his dear children.
I think bless is a word a lot of us have taken for granted — at least I have. The verb comes from Old English and is derived from the Germanic word for “blood.” To “bless,” then, literally meant “to consecrate or sprinkle with blood.” The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes — the early Germanic migrants to Britain — used the word for their pagan sacrifices. After they converted to Christianity, the word “bless” acquired new meanings as a result of its use in translations of the Latin Bible, but it kept its pagan Germanic senses as well.
While the songwriter is probably referring to “bless” in the sense of conferring well-being or prosperity on someone, I find it fascinating that Jesus, as a sacrifice, blesses his children in both the Germanic sense and the one we commonly think of, bringing peace and reconciliation with God and our fellow human beings through the cross.
More importantly, the songwriter asks Jesus to bless all his dear children — even the ones born in the muck of today’s “mangers.” Even the ones who are different from us. Even the ones who disagree with us. Even the Democrats. Even the Republicans. And even those in between.
And he has blessed us. But, in the wake of a particularly divisive election season, perhaps it’s best we all ask Jesus to be near us once again. Maybe then we can band together as members of a unified body humbly but veraciously playing our parts in a story that began 2,000 years ago years ago with a baby and continues on today as God brings peace, justice, and reconciliation to a world that desperately needs it — a world devastated last week by the slaughter of innocent children.
As we pray and mourn, let the lines of this children’s carol offer hope and rememberance that this broken world is not our home.
“Bless all the dear children in thy tender care
And take us to heaven to live with thee there.”
Brandon Hook is the Online Assistant at Sojourners.
Photo: Ramon grosso dolarea  / Shutterstock