Tuesday, December 24, 2013

(Baby) Jesus Wept

Crying He Makes


One year a granddaughter told me her choir was performing Away in a Manger for the Christmas program. She sang the first verse for me and then asked  if I knew the second verse. She seemed impressed when I said, “The cattle are lowing…”.

I do not know what the unknown author of the cradle song meant, but the common sense reading of that verse troubles me. The baby wakes (because the cattle’s lowing wakes him?), “but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.” What are we to make of that? Perhaps the point is his sinless perfection. Unlike those descended from Adam by ordinary generation, he does not cry when he awakes. Or, perhaps the point is that as “Christian children all should be mild, obedient, good as he,” so they should like him not cry when they are disturbed or distressed. Or perhaps, as is so often the case with our Lord’s life, the point is both the uniqueness and model of his life, his distinction from his and his example to us.

However we read it, the phrase "no crying he makes" is wrong.

If it is meant to tell us something about Jesus, it is wrong. 
If it is supposed to tell us that not crying is part of Jesus’ sinless perfection, then it is wrong theologically. Moreover it robs us of part of the comfort of his being a
sympathetic High Priest who knows our weakness and is touched with the feeling of our infirmity. 

Crying is a consequence of sin (and also can be be an expression of sin - there is sinful crying). But crying is not only inevitable; it is a wholly appropriate response to what we humans experience in this world.It may be that some babies who cry less than others are blessed with a happier temperament. But, babies, who cannot talk, need to cry in order to communicate their need for nourishment and other physical comforts. Perhaps also, as mothers used to say, “it develops their lungs.”

But there are also those crying episodes that seem beyond  explanation and consolation. Why? I don’t know, but I wonder if babies are not experiencing and expressing “cosmic angst”, feelings of isolation and alienation, the anxiety and fear that are part of the human predicament.

When we say that our Lord had not only a real body but a true human soul, we are confessing among other truths that he had without sin the full range of human emotions, including those caused by our living under the curse as mortal creatures in a groaning creation. We must not be uncomfortable with the reality that he felt. 

He wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus though he was about to raise him from the dead. I do not believe, as is sometimes said, that he wept for the unbelief of those at the grave. He wept because he felt what people feel at the loss of those they love, the grief of the living. “In the days of his flesh (Jesus) offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears…” While that comes to its most acute expression in the Garden, it describes one part of the reality of the whole of his earthly life.

Our Lord hears the cries of the babies, and he understands better than the most attentive and sympathetic parent. He knows what they are feeling, and he cares.. And, he knows our suffering, what it is to live as sin-weakened flesh, what it is to be sad and to feel fear. He is willing and able to help. In our groaning and tears he is interceding for the Father’s pity and the Spirit’s comfort.

If “no crying he makes” is meant to tell us something about the tears of babies and adults, it is also wrong.

I am ambivalent about tears. They often make me uncomfortable. I am told that, when I was a newborn, my mother’s aunt advised her to leave me in the crib when I cried, else I would be spoiled. I do not remember ever once seeing my father cry. Nor my father-in-law. And, my wife being of solid Germanic stock, I have experienced relatively little of wifely tears. I remember crying when I first saw my maternal grandfather in the casket, but not at the visitation or funerals of any other relatives. Along with my wife, I feel quite guilty that with our second son we took the advice of a pediatrician and left him as a little baby to cry alone in his bed. And generally I am neither impressed nor moved by male tears. I am not saying any of that is good or bad (except leaving our baby to cry). It just is.

But I do know that this world is a vale of tears, and that the crying of Jesus says something about the crying of babies. 

I know what parents mean when they say of a baby who cries little that “she’s a good baby.” But lack of crying can be a bad sign. The baby can be too sick or weak even to cry. It’s no fun listening to or trying to console a crying baby, but babies cry. I do not doubt that sometimes it is bad temper and little more, but I also know that the crying of babies is often justified and is at the same time a parable of life in this world.

It says something also about the weeping of adults. We should not be immoderate in our sorrows, but truth be told there’s a lot to cry about now, an awful lot. I could give you my list. You could give me yours. It’s good to know that Jesus understands and helps. But, it will not be till he comes to make all right and new that there will be no more tears and no more reasons for tears.

Perhaps the lowing cattle startled Jesus. Or scared him. Or just woke him up from peaceful sleep. Whatever, I think crying he made at his first Advent. And that's good.

Till at his second Advent he wipes away all our tears and grants us the unmixed joy and perfect blessedness of his heavenly resurrection life. 

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