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The little Lord Jesus

They don't call me Carolling for nothing. I love a bit of choral exertion this time of year. Bring on the way-outside-of-my-register top notes, the determined-but-disastrous descants, the I-don't-remember-that-one-from-before intervals, the oh-dear-are-we-still-on-this-syllable-I'm-about-to-pass-out slurs...

But there's a handful of carols that I find challenging to sing for entirely different reasons -- and top of that list would have to be Away in a Manger: musically straightforward, theologically problematic. In fact, as far as my faltering understanding goes, I find it so debatable in places that I am driven to on-the-fly editing (for example, I'm not convinced about Jesus residing in "the sky", but I am pretty confident that he is "on high" -- which, conveniently, fits the rhyme and meter just as well), selective silence (I've read too much N.T. Wright to sing "fit us for heaven to live with Thee there" without worrying that perhaps we should be singing about New Creation instead), and inward rants (what's all that business about "no crying he makes"?! Is the writer implicitly suggesting that crying is a sin?...that it's wrong to be sad? Not only do I find this problematic from a pastoral point of view, but I'm also fairly unconvinced from a Biblical perspective. After all, the adult Jesus wept so famously that one occasion gets a whole verse to itself).

What's more, there's something rather uncomfortably cutesie about Away in a Manger -- particularly when chorused by a tuneless troop of tea-towel trailing toddlers. "The Incarnation isn't 'nice' -- it's Awesome!" -- I find myself inwardly protesting. Mind you, that's not to say it isn't "for the children" -- seems to me it really is, in the profoundest way imaginable. And phrases like "the little Lord Jesus" are pretty powerful themselves, provided we remember to be fittingly bewildered every time we hear them.

Been musing on this one quite a bit this year -- with particular focus on that bit in Luke's gospel about Jesus' dedication ceremony in the temple, and Simeon's reaction on encountering the baby. At the risk of turning this into a habit, here's another sonnet...

I saw the preparation of my death
And life, lie crying, cradled in the arms
Of maiden motherhood. I heard alarms
And consolations in each wailing breath,
And recognised that many, wise and fools,
Would fall…and many rise; an issued sign
To bring to light the heart of the Divine,
And to lay bare the "reasoning animals".
No question but this advent should forebode
Contention: I could taste the moment; feel
The coming counteract, like sharpened steel --
For many feared such gifts as here bestowed.
But I, and others who had long held fast
The word, rejoiced to see it flesh at last.
Carolyn Whitnall, December 2013.

LUKE 2:25-35 
Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” 

[Thumbnail image cc from eren {sea+prairie} on Flickr].