It Fell Upon a Summer Day
Stopford Augustus Brooke, 1881
“And he took a small child, and set him in their midst.”
That’s the verse that Peter Cratchit is reading to his younger siblings, when Scrooge comes to their house, led by the Ghost of Christmas yet to come, because the old sinner had wanted desperately to see some tenderness associated with a death. And sure enough, the mother, Mrs. Cratchit, is waiting for her husband Bob to come home, as he does, having first visited the little green plot where their crippled child, Tiny Tim, is buried. Bob bears it bravely enough for a while, and then he breaks down. “My little child,” he weeps, “my little, little child!” But those are the shadows of things that may be, not of things that must be. And Scrooge will become, at heart, a boy again, and a boy such as he had never been before.
Of all the sweet moments in the life of Jesus, the sweetest for me is when the mothers come bringing their little children to him, that he might lay his hands on them and bless them. We can imagine it, can’t we? The Master has traveled a long way. He’s tired, his feet are sore, and the disciples, feeling responsible for the Master’s well-being, and also probably feeling rather important, begin to object. “Ladies, ladies!” I can hear them crying out. “Don’t you see the Master needs some rest? Come now, let’s have a little peace and quiet here. Take the children away.” And what children! Boys and girls of all ages, some bold and some shy, and maybe even a baby or two toddling about, stark naked. But Jesus loves them. They are no inconvenience to him. I’ll bet he found their company pretty restful, after having to deal with Pharisees or disciples or merchants or working men or squabbling wives all day long. Yet it isn’t just that.
“Let the little children come to me,” he says, “and do not prevent them, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Unless we become as little children, we shall not enter there. And for two thousand years, we’ve been trying to figure out what that means, or, maybe the more common thing, trying hard to ignore what we know very well that it does mean.
And that’s what moved the Reverend Stopford Brooke to write our Hymn of the Week, “It Fell Upon a Summer Day.” It’s hard for us to imagine, perhaps, but in the old days, if you went to a private school in England or America, you’d likely be gathered together for prayer in the morning and the evening, and naturally you would also sing a hymn; and then of course there were Sundays. So people wrote hymns specifically for school children, and you’ll find sections in many an old hymnal that are devoted to just those songs. They are usually straightforward, not weighted with a lot of theology, and they often have to do with the childhood of Christ himself. You probably know a few of these: “Once in Royal David’s City,” “All Creatures Great and Small,” “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild.” But the sprightliest of them all, to my ear, is this one, to the melody Childhood, composed by a Welshman — of course — named Henry Davies, for A Student’s Hymnal (1923).
Brooke prays for that spiritual childhood. It’s about as far as you can get from the self-assertion and self-seriousness and self-drama we are meant these days to practice, as if we were racing at breakneck speed away from the meekness and simplicity that Brooke describes in his hymn. And that we should gain our freedom through obedience — we have forgotten that secret. But consider what a great burden would we find lifted from our shoulders, if we heeded the words of Jesus, who said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and gentle of heart, and you shall find rest for your souls.” To be a child — that is the great goal to aim for! And perhaps to be a child, really, for the first time.
Note: We had some difficulty finding a performance of “Childhood” online, but we like the one by the Methodist Church Choir (Nigeria) for its simple reverence, although we think that the choir sings it a bit too slowly. So we also attached also the simple piano version of the hymn, for an idea of the usual tempo.
It fell upon a summer day, When Jesus walked in Galilee, The mothers from a village brought Their children to his knee. He took them in his arms, and laid His hands on each remembered head; "Suffer these little ones to come To me," he gently said. "Forbid them not; unless ye bear The childlike heart your hearts within, Unto my kingdom ye may come, But may not enter in." Master, I fain would enter there; O let me follow thee and share Thy meek and lowly heart, and be Freed from all worldly care. Of innocence and love and trust, Of quiet work and simple word, Of joy, and thoughtlessness of self, Build up my life, good Lord. All happy thoughts and gentle ways, And lovingkindness daily given, And freedom through obedience gained, Make in my heart thy heaven. O happy thus to live and move! And sweet this world, where I shall find God's beauty everywhere, his love, His good in all mankind. Then, Father, grant this childlike heart, That I may come to Christ, and feel His hands on me in blessing laid, Love-giving, strong to heal.
Word & Song by Anthony Esolen is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber. Learn more about our subscription tiers by clicking the button below.
Children are inspired when they see a beautiful painting of Jesus with children like themselves. It brings thie Gospel passage immediately into their hearts.
All who view this image are inspired too by the loving presence of Christ.
I know that for me, and perhaps for some others of your subscribers, Christ's agony, betrayal, passion and death is most often in the forefront of my thoughts. How beautiful it is as well to think and dwell on the "sweet moments in the life of Jesus." Perhaps, at some point, you could write more about those.