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Christmas in the Carols: Away In The Manger

Matthew 11:1-6

The Taj Mahal is, arguably, the most beautiful and the most costly tomb ever built. The stories surrounding the building of the Taj Mahal are fascinating. However, there is one dimension of the story which haunts and disturbs.

Shah Jahan, the powerful Mogul emperor was in grief. His favorite wife had died. He loved her deeply and he was devastated by her loss. He decided to honor her in a signal way. He would construct an incredible temple, the likes of which the world had never seen. The temple would serve as her tomb. It would be both a dramatic memorial to her and a spectacular symbol of his love for her. Her coffin then was placed in the center of a large parcel of land and construction of the temple began around it. No expense was spared—either in human or financial resources. But as the weeks turned into months, and the months years, the Shah’s grief was eclipsed by his passion for the building project. He no longer missed his beloved, no longer mourned her absence. All he thought about was the building of this magnificent temple.

Then one day while hurriedly walking from one side of the construction site to the other, he accidentally bumped his leg against a wooden box. He was irritated by that, and so he ordered the workers to get rid of the box immediately. “What was that box doing here in the middle of the building anyway? Get it out of here right now!” Shah Jahan didn’t realize that the box held the remains of his beloved wife. He threw out her coffin. He forgot that she was there. The one for whom the temple was being built was cast out. The one who inspired the whole project in the first place was now forgotten. The one the temple was intended to honor was harshly pushed aside and blatantly ignored, but the temple was built anyway. Isn’t that amazing?

How could anyone build a temple and forget why? How could anyone create a memorial and forget who is supposed to be memorialized? How could anyone sculpt a tribute and forget the hero? How could anyone celebrate an anniversary and forget the guest of honor? The story and the questions are painfully relevant for the way some people celebrate Christmas today. Sometimes we get so involved in the tasks and details of Christmas that we forget the One we are honoring.

That’s why I love to sing “Away In A Manger.”

Somehow perhaps more than any other carol, “Away in a Manger” reduces Christmas to its essentials and reminds us of the reason for the season. It was the first carol I ever learned to sing as a child, and I love to sing it still. For sheer beauty matched with childlike simplicity, it is unsurpassed. It is loved especially by children and it never sounds more beautiful than when sung by children’s voices. Yet when adults of any age sing the words they become children again, and they remember again “the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.”

We have long believed that the carol was written by Martin Luther and that he sang it to his children as a lullaby. Lovely story, but not true. In 1945, a music researcher stumbled on definitive proof that the first two verses were written more than likely by an American musician named James R. Murray in the year 1885. Seven years later the third verse was added but by whom we do not know. Yet while our understandings of this beginning of this carol were in error, the message of the carol is not. It has about it the solid ring of truth. And as a result, in the midst of our chaotic Christmas celebrations, this carol is a lovely reminder of the One whom Christmas honors. In a time when we become preoccupied with the pressures and demands of our crowded lives, this carol speaks poignantly of the simple birth of the Saviour we need and long to know.

And that’s why I love to come to this table.

Here, more powerfully and more personally than anywhere else, I remember Jesus. He said that that would be true. He said that whenever we acknowledge Him as Lord and Saviour and come to this table and eat this bread and drink this cup we will remember Him. I want that to be true for you.

Do you remember the old story about the little boy who was asked why he was a Christian? He said: “Well, I don’t know for sure but I think it runs in my family!” Now that’s a cute story and there is a facet of truth to be found in it. However, we can ride on the coat-tails of our Christian family only for so long, and then each of us, individually, has to make his or her personal decision for Jesus Christ. The family can help us—and it’s great when it does—but each of us has to decide to let Christ into our heart. Have you made that decision yet? Have you invited Him into your life? Have you made room in your heart for Him?

It’s amazing to me to see how many people today are spending so much time, effort, energy, and money looking for happiness and fulfillment in life—and they are looking in all the wrong places! The right place to look is here in Luke 2 where we find these incredible words: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” The right place to look is here at this table where Jesus says: “My body is broken and my blood is poured out for you and your salvation.”


Once a little girl was called upon to recite John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” She got off to a shaky start when she said, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only forgotten Son…” In so many lives He is forgotten. In so many celebrations of Christmas, He is missing. In so many hearts there is no room for Him. That’s why I love best that third verse of the carol. I sing it to myself over and over again at Christmas:

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray;
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care
And fit us for heaven to live with Thee there.

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