Once in Royal David's City
A Hymn for Children of All Ages
In the old hymnals you’ll often find a section specifically set aside for children, or designated for use “at catechism,” for children in school studying the faith. Some of those hymns are very sweet, obviously for little children, and that’s easy to justify, because it is Jesus himself who said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and hinder them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” The trick, though, is to compose a poem and set it to music in such a way as to make it fit for adults to sing, too. Otherwise, I fear, children will get the idea that there is something merely childish about the faith, and they will think they have to outgrow it, just as they outgrow Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.
Our choice this week, written by the prolific hymnodist Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander, is fairly well known as a Christmas carol, but it really has less to do with the Nativity than with living as a child, and learning about life in the home – with being docile, that is, teachable. It may not be to our taste, to consider that it is good to be teachable, to be obedient, literally, to take heed, to have ears to hear. But there is no alternative. I’ve long told my students that the choice for man is never whether he is going to obey, but whom, or what. In the end it amounts to no other than this. You will either obey God, the loving Father who builds you up by your obedience and makes you free, because He commands only what is for our good and forbids only what is to our harm, or you follow tamely along with the father of lies below, who makes himself out to be a patron of liberty, all to enslave you. Can we not see that phenomenon at work among us, as people who pride themselves on their independence and their freedom from religious faith are the most prone to accept every social fad the peddler of lies comes selling? Those are the two options. There is no third.
So it is that “Once in Royal David’s City” is suitable for us all, even for us whose chins are rough and whose voices have dropped into the baritone. But there’s more. Mrs. Alexander encourages us to see that the incarnation of the Son of God is a pattern for our own growth in holiness and wisdom. He became a little child, not so that he would simply outgrow that innocence and leave it behind, but to give us a pattern, a model, for the Lord who shed tears in the cradle, who knew “tears and smiles like us,” who embraced a child and set him in the midst of the disciples when they were arguing over who among them was the greatest, remains the eternal Son, ruling in glory at the right hand of the Father. Many hymnals omit the third and fourth verses, that look with fondness on the earthly childhood of Jesus, and others omit either the fifth or the sixth verse, and thus lose the drama of our following Jesus, or the rich and sublime irony, that the Lord who was born in the city of “royal David,” born in a cattle shed, now reigns in heaven, not with the mild-eyed oxen standing by, but surrounded by children, whether they were young with spring in their bones when they passed away, or old and trembling. Let the old Liar have his grim seniority in hell. We aspire to be children, and to sing.
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 honor 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.
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