“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” – Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens)
Are things beginning to feel Christmassy to you yet?
I for one have certainly enjoyed tucking into the first few days of my advent calendar over the past week (a Freddo and a Malteser reindeer so far, in case you’re wondering). My team at work had our Christmas party during the last week of November(!), and Christmas carols have been the backdrop in our flat for weeks on end, so it’s definitely beginning to feel like the Christmas season is upon us in our household.
The Christmas feeling started particularly early in my family this year, as in early October my brother announced that he had been given a role in ‘A Christmas Carol’ at the Old Vic theatre, running from early November to early January. Which, by all accounts, is a pretty good Christmas job for a student! Things got off to an interesting start on the opening night, when the Christmas turkey (which was due to descend from the ceiling onto stage) failed to appear. Cue significant confusion and hilarity for the rest of the scene, with references such as “doesn’t the turkey look tasty” negotiated whilst pointing towards a turkey sized gap on the table. I’ll be going to see it later this week, hoping that the turkey will make an appearance this time, and that my brother doesn’t break a leg before then…
Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, and have traditions that include a trip to see “A Christmas Carol” at the theatre, or attending an evening candle lit carol service, it’s likely that you are going to be exposed to numerous Christmas carols over the coming weeks, on the TV, radio, playing in shops, or pretty much anywhere with a pair of speakers! Lots of these carols are familiar to many of us, Christmas music hardly ever changes(!), but perhaps (as the saying goes) “familiarity breeds contempt”, or at the very least some of the meaning held within the lyrics can wash over us as we hum away to the well-known tunes.
So, I’m briefly exploring one of the best known Christmas Carols: Once in Royal David’s City. The traditional curtain raiser to a carol service, usually with the first verse sung as a solo by a brave volunteer (that was my brother when we were growing up, not me, you will be relieved to hear).
It’s quite a chunky one to kick off with, I’ll admit, but I suspect that’s with good reason. It seems that that Cecil Frances Alexander, who penned this back in 1848, had a fair amount that she wanted to note about this baby. However, I want to briefly pull out two broad themes:
1. This baby is pretty ordinary
The picture of the birthplace is not what we are used to, we clearly have hospital facilities and equipment that simply didn’t exist 2000 years ago, and yet even then this would have been considered an extremely unpleasant place to give birth. Being born in a “cattle shed”, amongst the by-products and smells that go with it, with the “oxen standing by”. The baby’s first bed, a “manger”, the cattle feeding trough. This was not a distinguished entrance into the world, it was quite the opposite, almost an inhumane way to enter the world.
However, this baby was as human as you or me, he was “little, weak and helpless” and like all young children there were many “tears” and many “smiles”. “Day by day” he grew in maturity, from a child, to a teenager, to an adult, and in so doing he experienced time of great joy, as well as times of great sadness, he “feeleth for of sadness” and he “shareth in our gladness”. He was, in many respects, a very normal human being. Starting as a helpless baby, and growing up experiencing the range of human emotions.
This baby is like us, but at the same time, there is lots about him that isn’t like us…
2. This baby is pretty extraordinary
Maybe this is not the case for you (if so, please share), but nobody has thought it necessary to write a song about my birth! And that is down to the unique claim about who this baby is, “he came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all”. This baby is unique, because in this baby God has come down from heaven, to earth. The all-powerful creator of everything, becomes a weak, helpless, dependent baby, born in a barn.
People noticed this as he grew up, throughout his childhood “he would honour and obey” those around him. I’m sure any parents among us can attest to how extraordinary that is…!
This child “so dear and gentle, is our Lord in heaven above”. Why so many songs written about this baby, because this is no ordinary baby, and that’s what this carol is wanting to highlight to us.
This carol focuses mainly on “Christmas Past” but following the theme of the theatrical performance I thought I’d highlight Cecil Frances Alexander’s mention of “Christmas Present” and “Christmas Future” here too.
“He leads his children on”, although this baby was born over 2000 years ago, this carol claims that Jesus is still at work today, and that is why Christians celebrate Christmas year on year (Christmas Present), knowing that one day “we shall see him, but in heaven” (Christmas Future). The birth of this baby was not about God coming to earth to set us a good example of how to live, this was God’s rescue plan to save the world: “lived on earth our Saviour holy” - Pete Downing
Once in Royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little Child.
He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.
And through all His wondrous childhood
He would honour and obey,
Love and watch the lowly maiden,
In whose gentle arms He lay:
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He.
For he is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.
And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heaven above,
And He leads His children on
To the place where He is gone.
Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see Him; but in heaven,
Set at God’s right hand on high;
Where like stars His children crowned
All in white shall wait around