Hymn text by William J. Kirkpatrick, 1838-1921. View the full text of this hymn.

We are often asked, in LDS theology, to give more attention to our hymns. Music can invite the spirit, and careful contemplation of the lyrics can add to our understanding of the doctrine. Indeed, there are some doctrines that we hold as true that are rarely mentioned outside of our hymns. And of course, this blog is based on the fact that the hymns have spiritual, doctrinal merit.

On the other hand, this hymn was once given to me as an example of how the hymns are not always doctrinally sound. Let me share the argument.

In this hymn, we have an idyllic version of the Savior’s birth. Sure, Christ has a manger instead of a crib, but everything seems to be still and peaceful and beautiful.

The cattle are lowing; the poor baby wakes, But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.

Were we to analyze this hymn, or accept it as unvarnished truth, we might come to some interesting and erroneous conclusions. Since one of Christ’s big accomplishments was living a sinless life, pointing out things he didn’t do suggests that that those things might be sins. But is it a sin to cry? Gosh, I hope not. Otherwise, I’m an even bigger sinner than I had previously thought.

Or perhaps it’s just a sin when a baby cries? But that seems to be confusing annoyance and inconvenience with sin, which is dangerous too. The guy at the bus station next to me isn’t a sinner because he’s got a sniffle, nor is the woman at the checkout in front of me a sinner because she thinks the price at the register wasn’t the advertised price, and it takes longer than I expected to get through the line because of her.

Plus, isn’t that part of the beauty and necessity of Christ’s mission? He came as a human, subject to human pains and desires and feelings. Babies feel those too, and communicate them with their cries and giggles and gurgles. If he never cried as a baby, I would suspect he wasn’t feeling the same things the rest of us do. The great and important thing is that he was, he did, and he still triumphed over it all so that we can, too.

So the lyrics of hymns, I think, are not infallible. Yet as an English teacher, I must bring up the fact that I have read many fictional books that ring true to me. The truth isn’t the truth of facts, but of feeling. And in that way, I can still get behind this hymn.

I can see the peace of the manger scene here as a metaphorical reference to the peace of God, that he offers to all through Christ. I can see tranquility of baby Jesus as an example of the tranquility we can feel, even in less than ideal or even in alarming circumstances.

For me, though, the best part of this hymn isn’t the still life with baby Jesus, anyway. It’s the abrupt change, where suddenly we are the infants, and Christ is the parent. We ask him to stay by our cradle, and to love us. But most important of all is the last line. What we really want isn’t just God’s affection, but his help. We want to become fit to reunite with him after this life. Improvement is better than comfort, and a permanent fix is better than a temporary one.

We know we’re immature and needy, fussy little babies in an eternal sense, but we know the Father and the Son have the whole picture, and we trust them to help us succeed, whatever that entails. Christ’s birth is a hugely significant event, but the reason we care more about his birth than anyone else’s is because Christ would fulfill the Atonement and save us. This hymn, by creating a version that probably isn’t quite true to the actual events of Christ’s birth, honors not just His condescension, but also His great accomplishment.

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