the mistaken eschatology of "Away in a Manger"

“Jesus's resurrection is the beginning of God's new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord's Prayer is about.” 

- N.T. Wright


I remember this song from when I was a kid: 


“heaven is a wonderful place / filled with glory and grace / I want to see my savior’s face / because heaven is a wonderful place / I wanna go there …” 


I internalized this idea of heaven and the after life to mean: in the end, won’t it be exciting to get called / taken to this place in the clouds so we can finally leave sinful, fallen earth and be with Jesus. 


 Years ago, this explanation of heaven and the after life ceased to sit right with me. It sacrificed the heaven-come-down, “on earth as it is in heaven” of the Lord’s prayer. 


I’ve since traded this view for one that more closely aligns with what N.T. Wright describes above. This makes more sense to me given the way I understand scripture, how I understand and experience God and God’s work in the world, and what I understand to be our universal call as people of faith.


God’s creation is the place where God is working out our salvation, not the place God is saving us from. it is where we are to join God in that work - as bearers of hope, mercy, love, and justice in a sometimes bleak environment; to as much as we can, bring a foretaste of God’s kingdom to our world that can be so broken and painful and inscrutable. In this work we are saying, “One day - one day there will be no more death or destruction in this place. No more sorrow and tears. Until that day, we are here to attempt to bridge the gap.”


 This is exciting to me - and profound, because it means I am on duty. I can’t twiddle my thumbs until I find God in the clouds. I have work to do. God is redeeming creation and using us as part of the process. 


But what well-thought out eschatology can stand in the face of a beloved Christmas Carol? I found myself belting out the words to “Away in a Manger” and had to pause when I came to the line: 


“… and take us to heaven to live with thee there"


WHAT? I was so disappointed in good ol’ Away in a Manger - and in myself for not seeing the discrepancy sooner! Not only does this line contradict my personal theology of the afterlife, it contradicts the celebration of Christmas! 


Somewhere between the opening line of “Away in a Manger,” and the plea to Christ at the end of the song to take us away to “live with thee there,” we’ve missed the point. Christ is come down; the word made flesh dwells among us, makes earth his home; incarnate love finds a place to live out not only the drama of the human story - birth, life, death - but also the drama of divine redemption. 


Now, I’m no Grinch. I’m not suggesting we throw out “Away in a Manger.” I see theology in everything and Ryan is fond of telling me that if I get rid of the things that don’t line up perfectly with my beliefs, I’ll be left with nothing - especially because my beliefs are constantly evolving and changing. What I hope we can do is use something as simple as a Christmas carol to learn a little bit more about what we believe and why.