“Singing, like praying, must begin at home if it should not suffer irreparable harm… Singing is good for the soul, and it can be learned. It can either unfold the mystery of godliness, or it will become slave to the mystery of iniquity. What we observe in modern teenagers reflects on the homes, many of them Christian homes. In times of stress and emotion the soul seeks outlet in song. If they have not learned and experienced in the home that singing soothes the soul (even has power over a Saul), then the Christian homes have starved the hearts of parents and children alike.”1
These words, written by one Christian to another, are just as true today as they were fifty-four years ago. Otto Gruendemann was a man who had been unlawfully deprived of his parish in the 1920s, and yet still served the church forty years later. Otto served God and his flock in humble conditions. His congregation met in the home of parishioners for church, Bible study, Sunday school, German class, confirmation, and, of course, hymn singing. Otto realized the great treasure of the hymns we have received, how they must be sung if we are to unfold the mystery of godliness to those who have been given into our care. Children should learn these beautiful hymns, not only in the pew, but from their parents’ knees.
What then do we sing in our homes? We know Shakespeare’s adage, “All that glisters is not gold.”2 To say that every hymn in Lutheran Service Book is worth learning is like confusing pyrite, “Fool’s gold,” with real gold just because it is found in the same treasure chest. Just because something is in the hymnal doesn’t mean that it is worth singing or learning.
But this is also true: just because something is not in Lutheran Service Book doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth learning or singing. So many treasures are buried and hidden from our eyes that we should weep because of our impoverishment. It is by God’s grace and favor that these choral gems come into the light of day, not only to be admired and loved, but also to be used for the glory of God and for the teaching of the young.
One such gem of Lutheran orthodoxy and orthopraxy is the hymn “O Jesus Christ, Thy Manger Is.” Now, you might think, “Isn’t this hymn in both The Lutheran Hymnal and in Lutheran Service Book?” You’re only half right. Both LSB and TLH have six stanzas listed. Walther’s Hymnal, hymn 39, on the other hand, has fifteen stanzas. Fifteen! We have been robbed, dear Christian, of these great treasures, as you shall shortly see.
Let us start with stanza three. “Thou, highest Good/ Dost lift our blood/ Up to the throne of God, Thy heav’nly Father.” What a beautiful message! Christ is the Highest good. And what does He do? Christ works our highest good by becoming a Man. The incarnation is not the conversion of the divine into flesh. No, the incarnation is the assumption of humanity into God. God is now the Man Jesus Christ. In stooping down, He raises us up to heaven. We now sit with Him in the heavenly places. And it continues: “Thou, Lord, with us / (Who are as grass) / Art both the Pow’r of God and our own Brother.” We are lifted up to the throne of God because Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. He, the Power of God, takes on our grassy flesh and is not ashamed to call us brothers.
If stanza three shows how God is with us in Christ, then stanzas four and five show us how the devil’s tyranny over us is broken. “His only ruse / Is to accuse / And keep us in our inborn sin engaging.” That is the devil’s only power over us. He uses the Law of God, which is holy, against us sinners, accusing us before God’s throne. But now, the devil has lost his only power: “Be still, O foe! / Dost thou not know; / My Friend, my flesh and blood, in heav’n is seated? / What thou didst smite / The Prince of might / From Jacob’s root to glory elevated!” Amazing! Here, God sets enmity between the devil and us, the children of Eve. He creates enmity between us and the devil by being our Friend. Our nature, that which the devil ruined and wounded through the first temptation, Christ has now elevated into the heavenly places. Our slavery to the devil has been changed into sovereignty over the devil. In Christ, we now trample Satan under our feet.3 On account of Christ, the devil is now silent forever.
Stanza nine comforts us with the communication of attributes. “There dost thou see / In front of thee / Thy flesh and blood which steer the clouds of heaven? / What then can rise / To steal this prize, / And leave thy soul by fear and sorrow driven?” Christ, true God and true Man, is in front of you. There are two natures, but there is one Christ. Omnipotence now shines, manifests, and exercises itself fully, yet voluntarily, in, with, and through the human nature in Christ. This is why we can say that Jesus, our flesh and blood, steers the heavens. If our Brother, one of us, is the Almighty God, then we need never fear the robbery of our salvation. We can be calm and confident in faith, not torn by fear and sorrow.
Stanza ten does not direct our eyes to the heavens, but rather points us to the humility and poverty of our Lord. “Thy mind so weak / Will seldom seek / Its comfort in the midst of sin and danger. / So turn thine eyes / Down from the skies / And find thy comfort in a lowly manger.” Sin enervates. The body, soul, and mind are made feeble by it. And so, when we sin or are in danger, we would more likely flee from the glorified, transfigured Christ than run to Him. And so, Gerhardt points us to the humility and poverty of Jesus Christ, who was laid in a dirty feed trough because He was poor and rejected by men.
Stanzas eleven and twelve are comforting exhortations. You may have “plagues” of the soul. Your conscience may be sick. You may feel “the pangs of hell.” But Jesus, our Brother, “loves the weak.” He “knows full well… And understands.” Therefore, the sinner is not to despair. Rather, he is to run with all speed, like the shepherds, to the cradle of the Christ Child, Who is full of “peace and patience.”
Stanza thirteen then reminds us that the manger must lead to Christ’s murder if we are to be saved. “For this indeed / Did He once bleed / And bear the cross’s fury in His body, / So that His pain / Might still remain / Of all our misery a constant mem’ry.” Christ became a man so that He could die for us. He bled and suffered the fury of the cross. And we can hold His passion, His suffering, in mind as we suffer. When we are miserable, we often think that God hates us or is absent from us. But it is not true. Christ suffered and bled for you. This is sure and certain proof that He does love you.
Stanza fourteen is a reminder that Christ shall deliver us from all evil, whether it is the banal evil which we face daily or our final deliverance by death. Here, Gerhardt uses the vocabulary of John’s Gospel. Jesus is the Door. He is the only way and access to the heavenly Father, to “all the joys true life could ever offer.” And because He loves us, Jesus shall send “a blessed end / To all that faithful Christians here must suffer.” Just like St. Paul, who was afflicted and bore the cross here, we too shall be delivered from all evil by the incarnate Lord who loves us. It may be in this life that Christ relieves our suffering. It may be, like St. Paul, that we must bear with the thorn of the flesh. Nevertheless, all these evil and distressing things shall come to an end. And, on the other hand, the joy which Christ gives us now shall never come to an end, but last forever.
I highly recommend that your family sing and learn by heart “O Jesus Christ, Thy Manger Is” from Walther’s Hymnal, which was translated by Matthew Carver and is available at CPH. It is a beautiful gem of Christian hymnody and will help you and your children unfold the mystery of godliness as you sit and work by your home’s hearth.
1. O Jesus Christ, / Thy manger is
My paradise at which my soul reclineth.
For there, O Lord, / Doth lie the Word
Made flesh for us; herein Thy grace forth-shineth.
2. He Whom the sea / And wind obey
Doth come to serve the sinner in great meekness.
Thou, God’s own Son, / With us art one,
Dost join us and our children in our weakness.
3. Thou, highest Good, / Dost lift our blood
Up to the throne of God, Thy Heav’nly Father.
Thou, Lord, with us / (Who are as grass)
Art both the Pow’r of God and our own Brother.
4. How can it be, / The enemy
Of souls should harm us with his bitter raging?
His only ruse / Is to accuse
And in our inborn sin keep us engaging.
5. Be still, O foe! / Dost thou not know:
My Friend, my flesh and blood, in heav’n is seated?
What thou didst smite / The Prince of might
From Jacob’s root to glory elevated!
6. Thy light and grace / Our guilt efface,
Thy heav’nly riches all our loss retrieving.
Immanuel, / Thy birth doth quell
The pow’r of hell and Satan’s bold deceiving.
7 Thou Christian heart, / Whoe’er thou art,
Be of good cheer and let no sorrow move thee!
For God’s own Child, / In mercy mild,
Joins thee to Him—how greatly God must love thee!
8. Remember thou / What glory now
The Lord prepared thee for all earthly sadness.
The angel host / Can never boast
Of greater glory, greater bliss or gladness.
9. There dost thou see / In front of thee
Thy flesh and blood which steer the clouds of heaven?
What then can rise / To steal this prize,
And leave thy soul by fear and sorrow driven?
10. Thy mind so weak / Will seldom seek
Its comfort in the midst of sin and danger.
So turn thine eyes / Down from the skies
And find thy comfort in a lowly manger.
11. Though plagues thou bear, / Do not despair!
Thy Brother will not spurn thy grief and sighing.
His heart is meek / And loves the weak,
Nor can He see our suff’ring without crying.
12. To Him make haste! / Seek help and rest!
Thou soon wilt thank Him for His peace and patience.
He knows full well / The pangs of hell,
And understands the sick and sinner’s conscience.
13. For this indeed / Did He once bleed
And bear the cross’s fury in His body,
So that His pain / Might still remain
Of all our misery a constant mem’ry.
14. To say no more, / He is the Door
To all the joys true life could ever offer.
He soon will send / A blessed end
To all that faithful Christians here must suffer.
15. The world may hold / Her wealth and gold;
But thou, my heart, keep Christ as thy true Treasure.
To Him hold fast / Until at last
A crown be thine and honor in full measure.4
1 O. Gruendemann, “Letter to Pastor Gerald Hinz, July 1, 1967.” Faith-Life, Summer 2016, Vol. LXXXIX, No. 2.
2 Merchant of Venice, Act II, Scene 7.
3 Rom. 16:20.
4 Text: P. Gerhardt, 1653; tr. sts. 1–2, 6–8, 15, TLH, 1941; sts. 3, 5, 9–14 M. Preus, 2010, alt.; st. 4, M. Carver. Tune: O Jesu Christ, dein Kripplein ist. 26. [TLH 81].