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.
During a particularly stressful December week a number of years ago, this verse of the popular Christmas hymn “Away in a manger” was a source of much consolation for me. Part of it was likely due to its sentimental value: I believe it’s one of the songs I learned on my mother’s lap in the rocking chair as a wee lad. I certainly have known the song as far back as my memory goes.
The music, too, with the sweetness of the melody, a slow and simple harmonic movement, and a gentle triple-time pulse, is soothing to the soul. Composed in 1887 by James Murray, while he was living in Cincinnati, Ohio, the tune I first learned goes by the name MUELLER and is commonly known as the American tune for this text, as opposed to the British tune CRADLE SONG, composed by William J. Kirkpatrick in 1895.
Most consoling, however, is the meaning of the text. While the first two verses were published anonymously in 1884, the earliest record of this third verse appears in the 1892 book Gabriel’s Vineyard Songs and may very well have been written by the book’s compiler, Charles H. Gabriel, though it is often, and seemingly wrongly, attributed to John T. McFarland.
After describing the traditional manger scene, the first two verses end in this way: “I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky / And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.” The third verse is primarily a meditation that develops both this childlike perspective and this desire for Jesus’ abiding presence.
In the first line, we ask the Lord Jesus to be near us and to stay with us. We want him not only to be present with us now but for his presence to stay with us, to abide with us, to remain with us. We know that the most wondrous and ineffable gift has been given to us in the Incarnation of Jesus, the Son of God and Savior of the World, and that we can only keep this gift by begging him to remain with us.
In the second line, we further declare that we want Jesus to stay close by us forever. Now that we know our Savior, there is no going back. We must remain in his presence forever because only his presence can heal our sin-sick souls.
Then we pray that he love us. When we think about just how sin-sick our souls really are, or when we are rejected by those close to us, those who are supposed to love us, we might be tempted to despair, to think that we don’t deserve to be loved. The presence of Jesus in our lives dispels this lie because his very presence is love: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn 4:16). When we desire to remain with earthly things or even with those closest to us, let us remember that these desires should lead us to the one whose presence is Love Itself.
At the end of the second verse, we ask Jesus to “stay by [our] cradle till morning is nigh.” We sing this carol from the perspective of a child in a cradle, helpless and unable even to speak. While God gives us the powers of reason and free will by which we can know and love Him, we never reach the full potential of those powers but are always as children to our heavenly Father, who knows and loves us perfectly and is the giver of every good gift. In the third line of the third verse, we ask our Lord Jesus to grant to the children in His tender care the blessings we are unable to give to ourselves.
In the final line of the verse, we ask him to grant us the best of all blessings, the thing we are most unable to do for ourselves: we ask him to fit us for heaven. It is Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life, who has repaired the brokenness of our relationship with God that we have caused through sin. Only through a childlike faith in his power to save us can we be made fit to live with him forever.
And, as we said at the beginning of the verse, that is precisely where we want to be. We want to arrive at the place where we know that Jesus will stay with us, where we will be perfectly healed by his loving presence for all eternity. Coming before him this Christmas as his beloved children, we pray that God will give us the grace of final perseverance, making us fit to live in his loving presence forever.
Image: Jean-Honore Fragonard, Le berceau (The Cradle)