“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.”
I’ve always loved the opening lines of that carol. I know it’s cheesy; I know the song contains some dubious theology (look down from the sky!) and forces non-Christian parents at nativity services to sing ‘I love you Lord Jesus’ while looking uncomfortably at the floor. Yet that first line still chokes me up.
Part of it’s because it takes me back to my childhood. The school hall, the smell of which is still ingrained in my nasal memory; rubbish Christmas plays (I never got to play Mary, but every year I hoped); hot chocolate and warm mittens and watching them turn on the feeble town Christmas lights. That song tended to crop up everywhere, and now provides a soundtrack to all that nostalgia.
But the other reason why I love that line is because it reminds me, better than any other lyric, of the reality of the incarnation. Because Jesus didn’t arrive into the world as a walking, talking man; he didn’t just appear behind some bins one day like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator. He came into humanity the same way the rest of us do, as the first stage of man: Shakespeare’s ‘mewling, puking infant.’
Every time I hold my youngest son, who was born in October, I am reminded of the utter vulnerability of that stage. A newborn can do literally nothing for itself; if you place it in peril it has no idea that it’s endangered and no means to protect itself. And this is what that line reminds me; God, the all-powerful creator of the entire universe, sent his equally magnificent Son into the world, and made him that vulnerable. The traditional nativity scenes don’t show this, but for a while the son of God could do nothing for himself. He needed parents to keep him clean and warm. He needed Mary’s milk (not a phrase we often contemplate) to stay alive. Utterly vulnerable: God’s life, in man’s hands.
Fast forward 33 years, and we see the same picture played out on the cross. Again Jesus made himself utterly vulnerable – despite his unlimited power – to the hands of man, and this time they took his life. That vulnerability marks the start of his life and the end, and reminds us that if we would go after him, we too must make ourselves vulnerable – to him and for him.
This Christmas, as I inevitably sing that song again, I’m going to reflect on the extraordinary act of grace encapsulated in it. Away in a manger, God came to earth and made himself totally vulnerable, in order that he might rescue mankind. What an incredible King. For that and a thousand other reasons I sing: I love you Lord Jesus.