Victorian Prudery or Irish Earthiness?

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I sing of a night in Bethlehem
A night as bright as dawn.
I sing of that night in Bethlehem
The night the Word was born.
The skies are glowing gaily.
The earth in white is dressed.
See Jesus in the cradle
Drink deep of His mother’s breast.

And there on a lonely hillside
The shepherds bow down in fear.
When the heavens open brightly
And God’s message rings out so clear.
Glory now to the Father
In all the heavens high,
And peace to His friends on earth below
Is all the angels cry.

I am especially taken with the last two lines in the first verse:

“See Jesus in the cradle
Drink deep of His mother’s breast.”

I wonder how that line strikes the average Christian? I wonder if they would be both uneasy and not a little scandalized? Not many carols speak of the nursing baby Jesus. Rather, we are more familiar with the lyrics of “Away in a Manger”:

“The cattle are lowing
The poor baby wakes
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes.” 

“…no crying he makes?” This is Victorian prudery not gospel modesty. I can imagine also, that the Irishness offended the English, Victorian sensibilities. This carol strikes me as an Irish carol through and through because of three things.

Firstly, I believe the Irish loved the Incarnation and our union with Christ through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. That God would become man amazed them. It was a wonder. That God would come and dwell with men, was cause for the highest order of praise. Hear these words attributed to St. Patrick,

“I bind unto myself today
the strong Name of the Trinity,
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One, and One in Three.
Of whom all nature hath creation,
eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
praise to the Lord of my salvation,
salvation is of Christ the Lord.”

Can you hear it? — the binding of self to the Triune God, the God of nature’s Creator? The thought delighted the Irish.

Secondly, the image of Jesus nursing is decidedly “earthy”. Doesn’t it seem undignified? Well, that begs a question doesn’t it? How dignified was it that the King of Creation was born in barn amidst all that…you know. Nevertheless, this is the way it was. It’s not cleaned up and made unrealistic. “God put on skin and moved into the neighborhood.” You cannot get more earthly than that.

Lastly, the picture of Jesus nursing is an image of thriving. I believe I recall reading in Thomas Cahill’s great book on the influence the Irish had on Western culture, How the Irish Saved Civilization, that pagan, Celtic culture was obsessed with death. All of the their gruesome stories of death and demons mirrored a great fear of death as well as a hopelessness and despair of life. When the Celts heard in the gospel that the Son of God died a gruesome death in their place? Well, that set them free to glory in the beauty of creation–not merely fear it.

Here’s the first rendition I recall hearing. This version is by the Chieftains from their Christmas album, The Bells of Dublin. Burgess Meredith reads the English translation at the beginning.

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