#4 "Away in a Manger" (music: William J. Kirkpatrick, text anonymous, based on Luke 2:7)
When I set out to write about these fourteen hymns, I did it mostly to give me a reason to write about the top three, each of which I'm very excited for. When I drew up the list, there was a clear divide for me between the top three hymns and the remaining eleven. The more I thought about them, though, the more I realized that this hymn wasn't so far off from the others. In fact, the more I listen to it, the more I realize that it's really terrific.
Let's start with the obvious aspect that sets this hymn apart from the other thirteen: it's a lullaby. (Yes, "Silent Night" is also a lullaby, but I don't think it's nearly as salient a feature of the hymn as it is with this one.) It's in three, it has simple tonal harmonies, and the lyrics encourage the hearer to be calm and go to sleep. It's the sort of song I could picture being played on a Fisher-Price record player. I tried to find either a recording of the song on such a record player or a way that I could create my own, but I couldn't find anything, so you'll have to imagine it, I'm afraid.
So who are we singing the lullaby to? We're singing it to baby Jesus Himself. We spend the first verse singing about Him, but the second and third transition to addressing Him directly. You know the first verse; listen now to the second:
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.
There's an interesting transition from addressing the baby in the cradle to a resident of heaven, and in fact, when we make that switch, it's fair to say that we're reversing roles. Where once we sang to a tiny baby as gentle parents, we now approach our gentle Lord as relative infants ourselves. Infants go through a wild variety of emotions and don't know why they feel what they do. We may find ourselves in the same situation, and here we turn to the Lord and ask Him to "stay close by me forever, and love me." If babies could talk, I imagine they might say something similar.
I have a baby daughter of my own, which colors my experience hearing this hymn. When she's crying and doesn't know why, sometimes I pick her up and hold her close. I'll rock back and forth, I'll try to make soothing sounds, and I'll tell her what a sweet baby she is. I tell her that I love her, and I do. It comforts both of us.
So when I hear the words, "I love thee, Lord Jesus," I can picture myself holding the tiny King in my arms, being overcome with the majesty of who it is I'm holding, but also with my love for Him who made it possible for God and sinners to be reconciled. And when I sing "and stay by my cradle till morning is nigh," I can picture myself being held close. I can picture being told that I am loved, and that He is near.
The lullaby is for the baby, but it's also for "all the dear children in [His] tender care." We sing it to Him, and He sings it to us. We comfort Him, and He comforts us. We love Him, and He loves us.
Previously in this series
#5 Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
#6 Oh Come, All Ye Faithful
#7 Far, Far Away on Judea's Plains
#8 Once in Royal David's City
#9 Angels We Have Heard on High
#10 It Came upon the Midnight Clear
#11 O Little Town of Bethlehem
#12 With Wondering Awe
#13 Joy to the World
#14 While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks