I can’t recall when, in my childhood, I first heard the spiritual. It’s one of those memories so early and formative, it knits itself into your bones. Since then, I’ve heard “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” sung by church choirs and perfectly inflected by opera stars. The spiritual is a prayer offered to both the baby and the grown, murdered, and resurrected Jesus. It speaks to Him of poverty, of cruelty, and of spiritual blindness.
Sweet little Jesus boy, they made you be born in a manger.
That we would relegate a birthing mother to a cattle cave is bad enough.
We didn’t know who you were.
That we didn’t see the abhorrence of our act, unfathomable. Yet that’s what happened. And to what “Jesus Boy’s” creators could relate. Not to be seen. Not to be treated as God’s children.
Didn’t know you’d come to save us all
To take our sins away
Our eyes were blind we did not see
We didn’t know who You were
“Jesus Boy’s” creators knew what it meant to be made invisible, to be treated as “less than.”
The world treat you mean, Lord.
Treat me mean, too…
Felt the pain of cruelty in their bones. Yet…
Just seems like we can’t do right
Look how we treated you
But please, Sir, forgive us Lord
We didn’t know it was you.
They don’t choose to see themselves simply as victims. Owning their part in the need for Jesus’ coming, they ask forgiveness. Asking for anything requires courage, because asking makes us vulnerable. Asking forgiveness takes extraordinary courage, because that kind of asking also requires humility.
You done showed us how you been tryin’
Master, you don’t showed us how,
Even as you were dyin’.
Faithful unto death. Can I do that? I don’t know. The song’s creators didn’t, couldn’t know. But, in Jesus, they saw a courage for which they longed. In the Little Jesus Boy, Murdered Man, Resurrected God they found hope.
For me, the song best finds its truth when sung by a single voice. One that’s known some tears.
Check out this rendering: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5_w2XpG7DI