Written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
From our recently distributed booklet "Christmas Carols and Their Stories"
Given its simple words and lullaby-like tune, this well-loved song is often thought of as a children’s carol. In spite of that, “Away in a Manger” merits singing by adults as well. The words lead us in expressing both a childlike acknowledgement that the baby in a manger is the Lord and a childlike trust in him to care for us and others, now and to the end of our days.
As suggested by its title, “Away in a Manger” focuses on the humble arrival of the Son of God into our world. We read in Luke 2:7 that the Virgin Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” The Lord Jesus Christ, though one with God the Father and God the Spirit in being, majesty, glory, and power, willingly humbled himself not only by becoming human, but also by accepting a manger for his first bed. That would not be the last time he humbled himself (see Phil 2:8), but it’s certainly memorable, and it’s not for nothing that we express such childlike wonder in this opening verse.
This second verse has caused no small amount of handwringing. Depending on how you interpret it, this verse almost makes Jesus sound as if he weren’t fully human. After all, we all know that babies cry, and that it is not always because they are by nature sinful like the rest of us. Crying is very often a baby’s way of letting others know that he or she is hungry or needs help. Is this verse suggesting that Jesus, as an infant, was not really, truly like us, contrary to Hebrews 2:17? It need not be interpreted that way. When we sing that the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes, we’re singing of momentary sweetness, not perpetual silence. In other words, we’re expressing love for him. Indeed, in the second half of this verse we declare our love for him straightforwardly. Last of all, we close with a prayer that he would watch over us now when we too lie down to sleep.
We continue our prayer in this third and final verse, asking him to stay close to us, love us, bless us and all the dear children in his tender care, and fit us for heaven, to live with him there. This prayer, though simple, is fitting in the light of who he is. Is this baby in the manger your hope? Is this prayer your prayer?
In the absence of any evidence concerning the author of this song, “Away in a Manger” is sometimes attributed to Martin Luther, the famous Protestant Reformer of the 16th century. The little evidence we do have, however, points to a 19th century American whose precise identity remains a mystery. The song first appeared in a children’s songbook published in Philadelphia in 1885, and two years later appeared in another songbook with the now-famous tune by James R. Murray. Other tunes have been composed since then, but none have supplanted Murray’s tune.