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Credo
4 December 2023

This article was first published on “Soundings” — a series of essays that, like the waves of a sonogram, explore issues in society, culture and the church in light of the Gospel and Christian understanding.

I hope lovers of Christmas carols will forgive me for saying that not all carols are created equal. Some carols contain the most profound theology of the Incarnation— which is what Christmas is all about—while others border on the sentimental.

The much-loved carol “Away in the Manger” unfortunately belongs to the second category.

For some time, many have thought that the 16th century Protestant Reformer Martin Luther was the author of the lyrics of this carol. But as Michael Hawn, Professor of Sacred Music at Perkins School of Theology, notes, hymnologists are now of the view that the famous carol is wholly an American product.[1]

The hymn paints the most idyllic picture of the first Christmas night: the baby Jesus sleeps in the surreal tranquillity of a manger, beneath a bright starry sky and in the company of gentle lowing cattle. But the carol’s most concerning aspect is its conception of Christ, which can be gleaned from the seemingly innocuous statement in the second stanza: “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”

“If the suggestion in the hymn,” writes Hawn, “is that the baby was a kind of super infant whose divinity overshadowed his humanity, then we may be moving into the realm of Gnosticism …”[2] The lyrics are also suggestive of a docetic Christology, which implies that the Son of God did not really become flesh, but only “appeared” to be a human being.

Both Gnosticism and Docetism were condemned as heresies by the early fathers of the Church.

Another favourite carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, composed by Charles and John Wesley, is a hymn of a totally different theological calibre.[3] This hymn is shot through with the high Christology of the Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds.

The hymn is a celebration of the Incarnation of the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. It speaks of the pre-existence of Christ who is “by highest heav’n ador’d”, and who in the fullness of time (“Late in time behold him come”) became the “offspring of the virgin’s womb.”

Wesley’s carol reflects penetratingly on the profound mystery of the Incarnation. Jesus is the “incarnate deity”, and it is through his humanity that the eternal and invisible God himself is revealed (“Veil’d in flesh, the Godhead see, Hail th’ incarnate deity!”).

The hymn upholds Christ’s full deity and full humanity in concert with the statement of the Chalcedonian creed that the incarnate Son is “perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man… coessential with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood.”[4]

Both the revelatory and soteriological significance of the Incarnation are underscored in this hymn (“Light and life to all he brings, Ris’n with healing in his wings”).

The revelatory and illuminative significance of the Incarnation is stressed in the Patristic dictum that “God can only be known by God”. Thus, only in and through the eternal Son can we come to know the triune God.

The soteriological significance of the Incarnation is alluded to in the very first stanza (“God and sinners reconcil’d”), and developed more fully in the sixth. By his self-emptying or kenosis (Philippians 2:6-8), the eternal Son became a human being in order to bring salvation to sinners.

Mild he lay his glory by,

Born—that man no more may die,

Born—to raise the sons of earth,

Born—to give them second birth.

 

This is the true significance of Christmas! This is reason why the hymn invites every nation to join in heaven’s triumph:

Joyful all ye nations rise,

Join the triumph of the skies,

Universal nature say

“Christ the Lord is born today!”

 

In a culture in which Christmas is routinely and brutally secularised and commercialised, Christians must be selective in the carols they choose to sing. For only theological carols such as Wesley’s Christmas hymn can bring home the true meaning of Christmas and underline its true significance.

The original lyrics of the Charles Wesley carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, simply titled “Hymn for Christmas Day”.

Hymn for Christmas Day

Hark how all the welkin rings

“Glory to the King of kings,

Peace on earth, and mercy mild,

God and sinners reconcil’d!”

 

Joyful all ye nations rise,

Join the triumph of the skies,

Universal nature say

“Christ the Lord is born to day!”

 

Christ, by highest heav’n ador’d,

Christ, the everlasting Lord,

Late in time behold him come,

Offspring of a virgin’s womb.

 

Veil’d in flesh, the Godhead see,

Hail th’ incarnate deity!

Pleas’d as man with men t’ appear

Jesus, our Immanuel here!

 

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!

Hail the Sun of righteousness!

Light and life to all he brings,

Ris’n with healing in his wings.

 

Mild he lay his glory by,

Born—that man no more may die,

Born—to raise the sons of earth,

Born—to give them second birth.

 

Come, desire of nations, come,

Fix in us thy humble home,

Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring seed,

Bruise in us the serpent’s head.

 

Now display thy saving pow’r,

Ruin’d nature now restore,

Now in mystic union join

Thine to ours, and ours to thine.[5]

 

[1] Michael Hawn, “History of Hymns: ‘Away in a Manger'”, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-away-in-a-manger.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Although John and Charles Wesley composed the original lyrics, their friend George Whitefield (1714-1770) made several changes to the hymn and added it to his Collection of Hymns for Social Worship in 1753.

[4] The Chalcedonian Creed (451 AD), https://www.ccel.org/creeds/chalcedonian-creed.html.

[5] Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), 206-207, https://divinity.duke.edu/sites/divinity.duke.edu/files/documents/cswt/04_Hymns_and_Sacred_Poems_%281739%29.pdf.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.