The traditional words of the much-sung carol, Away in a Manger, offer a heavily romanticised, sickly-sweet, unrealistic take on the infant Jesus.
Yes, to be sure, newborn babies do look sweet and innocent. But not quite as clean, not quite as picture-perfect, as the many cards and carols present the newborn Jesus. And no crying? Not ever? That does not ring true, surely!
Indeed, one could argue that the way that Jesus is depicted in this carol flies in the face of the very claim that the carol, and the story to which it refers, seeks to make: that, in Jesus, God entered human life, became one of us, was incarnate, enfleshed, fully and completely human. After all, an infant who never cries must surely not be human, we would think?
And yet, still the carol features in Christian worship services as well as shopping mall Muzak and perpetual Christmas movie reruns on tv.
In response to these beloved words, a number of contemporary lyricists have offered rewrites of this classic carol (it is only around 130 years old, if the truth be known).
Each of these versions reworks the carol so that the realism of the day is evident — especially highlighting the plight of the family as refugees, seeking safety in another country. That part of the story resonates so strongly with our contemporary world: the number of refugees across the globe is the largest it has ever been, and it continues to grow as warfare afflicts country after country.
How ancient and lovely. Words by British writer Rebecca Dudley (Shine on Star of Bethlehem, Christian Aid)
How ancient and lovely, this news of a star,
a baby, a mother, the kings from afar.
Come close now, Lord Jesus, we ask you to stay
and show us your face in your people today.
What star shall we follow but one that leads here
to a baby born homeless and a family in fear?
What heaven shall we long for but one that starts there
for all the world’s children in your tender care?
We thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth;
for the light in the darkness that shone at your birth,
for life in its fullness that you promise today,
and the hope of a baby asleep in the hay.
Away and in danger. Words by Shirley Erena Murray from Aeotearoa New Zealand
Away and in danger, no hope of a bed,
the refugee children, no tears left to shed
look up at the night sky for someone to know
that refugee children have no place to go.
The babies are crying, their hunger awakes,
the boat is too loaded, it shudders and breaks;
humanity’s wreckage is thrown out to die,
the refugee children will never know why.
Come close, little children, we hold out our hand
in rescue and welcome to shores of our land –
in *aroha, touching your fear and your pain,
with dreams for your future when peace comes again.
*aroha is Maori for ‘warm embracing love’
alternative line “in touching, in healing’
If I saw my toddler. Words by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette of the USA
If I saw my toddler with hands in the air
In fearful surrender to someone, somewhere,
I’d search for a people in some other place
Who practiced their preaching and showed love and grace.
If I had to flee from the madness of war—
From terror and violence and things I abhor,
I’d search for a nation with arms open wide,
With safety and beauty and friendships inside.
Be with me, Lord Jesus, as I seek to be
A friend to the stranger and poor refugee,
And as I remember you once had no bed,
May I give up fear and give welcome instead.
This hymn was inspired by a photo of a small Syrian child,
hands in the air, fearing that a camera lens was a gun:
Biblical References: Leviticus 19:34; Matthew 25:35; Luke 2:7; Hebrews 13:1; 1 John 4:18
Tune: James Ramsey Murray, 1887 (“Away in a Manger”)
Text: Copyright © 2015 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.
Millennium Carol. Words by Jan Chamberlin of Aeotearoa New Zealand
Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
A long ago baby was born in a shed.
What possible meaning could this have for me,
A child of computers and technology.
The stars in the bright sky look down on me now,
But Christmas in these days lacks something, somehow,
There’s tinsel and turkey and gifts by the score,
Yet I am left feeling that there should be more.
Wise men with research grants can do awesome deeds,
But we are neglectful of our neighbors needs
For love and for caring, a Christ-child reborn:
God’s hand touching our hand on each Christmas morning.
The old manger story, with shepherds and kings:
Amazing how simple the message it brings.
Regardless of science or surfing the net:
God still sends us Jesus, and he loves us yet.
Words by Jan Chamberlin, from With Heart and Voice
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