Somehow the legend persists that Martin Luther wrote the famous Christmas carol “Away in a Manger.” The truth of the matter is that the carol was not written in German but in English, and that it did not make its first appearance—right here in Philadelphia—until the 1880’s. However, according to the famous Luther scholar Roland Bainton, “Away in a Manger” may have been written in 1884 to honor the German Reformer on the 400th anniversary of his birth. And in a way the legend is appropriate, because as much as any other theologian, Luther had a passion for celebrating the true meaning of Christmas [see Bainton’s introduction to Martin Luther’s Christmas Book (1948; repr. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1997), p. 7].
Over the course of more than thirty years in ministry, Luther often preached from the Christmas narratives in the Gospels, and from other passages related to the incarnation of God the Son. Typically he would preach on Christmas several times a week throughout Advent, carefully working through each passage verse-by-verse. He also wrote at least five Christmas carols, composing the music as well as coming up with the lyrics.
What were some of the main themes in Luther’s theology of Christmas and the cross? The famous Reformer often emphasized the humble circumstances of the people who witnessed the Savior’s birth. He characterized Mary as “a lowly maid from a mean town,” and said that among “the downtrodden people she was one of the lowliest, not a maid of high station in the capital city, but a daughter of a plain man in a small town” [pp. 12-13]. Of the shepherds he said, “That was a mean job, watching flocks by night. Common sense calls it low-down work, and the men who do it are regarded as trash” [p.35].
Luther used similar language to describe the earthiness of our Savior’s birth. “Bad enough,” he wrote, “that a young bride married only a year could not have had her baby at Nazareth in her own house instead of making all that journey of three days when heavy with child. The inn was full. No one would release a room to this pregnant woman. She had to go to a cow stall and there bring forth the Maker of all creatures because nobody would give way” [p. 30]. So it was that when the wise man came to worship the newborn King, “they saw but a tumbled down shack and a poor young mother with a poor little babe, not like a king at all” [p. 58].
These sufferings were all part of God’s saving plan. In order for God the Son to do the work of redemption—and to save ordinary sinners like Mary and the shepherds—he had to become a man and endure all the difficulties and degradations of our human situation.
We might be tempted to think that if we had been in Bethlehem, we would have given the baby Jesus the welcome he deserved. “If only I had been there!” Luther imagines us saying. “How quick I would have been to help the Baby.” And yet, said Luther, “You only say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at that time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem. Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor. You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself” [p. 31]. Spoken like a true pastor, always trying to encourage his congregation to put their faith into practice.
Throughout his preaching on the incarnation, Martin Luther had a pressing concern for Christmas to make its way into our hearts. “We must both read and meditate upon the Nativity,” he preached. “If the meditation does not reach the heart, we shall sense no sweetness, nor shall we know what solace for humankind lies in this contemplation. The heart will not laugh nor be merry” [p. 15].
The true believer’s response to the true meaning of Christmas is beautifully expressed in a carol that Luther wrote for his young children—a carol commonly known by its opening words: “From Heaven High.” The carol seems to have been written for a Christmas pageant to be performed in Luther’s church. First an angel sings, announcing the Savior’s birth. The final stanza of the angel’s song goes like this:
Look now, you children, at the sign,
A manger cradle far from fine.
A tiny baby you will see.
Upholder of the world is he.
These words serve as the cue for the church’s children to come forward and worship the Christ. With reverent wonder they sing:
How glad we’ll be if it is so!
With all the shepherds let us go
To see what God for us has done
In sending us his own dear Son.
Look, look, my heart, and let me peek.
Whom in the manger do you seek?
Who is that lovely little one?
The Baby Jesus, God’s own Son.
Be welcome, Lord; be now our guest.
By you poor sinners have been blessed.
In nakedness and cold you lie.
How can I thank you—how can I?
O dear Lord Jesus, for your head
Now will I make the softest bed.
The chamber where this bed shall be
Is in my heart, inside of me.
Then the whole congregation joins the song, celebrating Christmas the Martin Luther way, and the way of every true believer in the Christ of Christmas:
To God who sent his only Son
Be glory, laud, and honor done.
Let all the choir of heaven rejoice,
The new ring in with heart and voice [pp. 71-72].