Songs are an integral part of most of our lives, and this is never more obvious than during the season leading up to Christmas. Even those of us who are slow to start playing Christmas music in our homes are only hesitant to do so because we love the place Christmas music holds in our hearts when the season is fully upon us. So while my brother used to allow Christmas music any time after September and I tend to wait until the beginning of December, the music of the season is a treasured part of the year.
As much as we may all enjoy the non-sacred songs of Christmas (singing Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree with the acoustic guitar is always great fun), the hymns and carols that celebrate the coming of Jesus are the bread-and-butter of this time of year. Yet as with the songs we listen to on the radio or through our Spotify playlists, a lot of the time our music is in the background providing atmosphere rather than receiving our close attention. Even in church, I suspect we’re happy just to sing of Christmas and that we aren’t always hanging on to every word.
A few years back I did a couple of posts about a familiar Christmas hymn or two. As I chose our music for worship over the next few weeks, browsing the Christmas section of our hymnal, it seemed like maybe it was time to do that again.
Once in Royal David’s City
In our Wednesday Bible study, we just read Hebrews 2, the great chapter emphasizing the importance of Jesus’ full humanity for his work of serving us as priest and rescuer. We considered the big truths of Jesus’ sharing our humanity, that because he was “made like [us] in every way” he can help us with the harsher parts of being human: fear of death, past and future sins, and present temptations to sin. This insistence on Jesus’ humanity is a little jarring when we remember that in chapter 1 we were told that Jesus is the one through whom we were created (1:2). Jesus exists as the exact representation of God’s being, the agent of our creation who has powerfully dealt with our sins (1:3).
Powerful Creator, humble suffering human. Do we choose one or do we hold them together? Christians down through the centuries have taken their lead from passages like Hebrews 2 and said that we must hold them together. As we hold them together, we never let up on either emphasis. In the strongest terms we must say that Jesus is on the God side of the line between the Creator and everything else: he is no creature himself, but is worthy of our worship. And in the strongest terms we must also say that Jesus is just like us, fully human in every way except without sin (Hebrews 2:17, 4:15).
“Once in Royal David’s City” (by the 19th century hymn writer Cecil F. Alexander) is a Christmas song that works to do just that. After telling the basic story of Mary laying her new baby in a manger, the hymn goes on to do solid and basic theological reflection like what we find in Hebrews 1-2.
The second verse emphasizes the incarnation itself. If we are still tempted to think of Christmas as the celebration of a hero’s birthday, a mere commemoration of a great man’s beginning, “Once in Royal David’s City” sets us right. What we celebrate at Christmas is the coming of God into the world.
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 meek and lowly, lived on earth our Saviour holy.
The coming of God—the incarnation—was a coming in humility. Jesus not only attended to the needs of the poor and meek and lowly, he was one of them. Yet the one who came to be with humanity in its humble plight is the one who is called in Matthew’s Gospel Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” The hymn insists that this is the true identity of Jesus: he “is God and Lord of all.” There can be no stronger words for Jesus than these words which remind us of the awed, worshipful words of Thomas seeing the risen Jesus: “My Lord and my God!”
The next verse shifts its attention to the full humanity of Jesus. He really was fully “with the poor and meek and lowly.” He has known all of our humanity:
Jesus 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 feels for all our sadness, and he shares in all our gladness.
No part of life—not the happy times, not the griefs—has been untouched by Jesus. The words “feels” and “shares” in that third line are both there to indicate Jesus’ owning of our experience as his own. He feels it. He shares it. And like us, he grew up through life, from the helplessness of childhood, dependent on parents and helpers and teachers all around him, through both tears and smiles. Although the Gospels zip along quickly to Jesus’ maturity (with Luke stopping for a brief moment at age twelve), Jesus grew up the long and normal way like the rest of us. He is the pattern for us all to follow in life: we too must grow up, learning and advancing in our developing maturity in Him, through both good times and bad. As we walk this road, he knows what it is like.
Verse 2, then, emphasizes Jesus as “God and Lord of all,” while verse 3 insists that he is just like us in every way, With his childhood as the great symbol of his humility. The final verse of the hymn pulls the two emphases together: “that child, so dear and gentle, is our Lord in heaven above.” This Jesus, who is our powerful Lord and God, is able to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves: redeem and save. This Jesus, who has shared our humanity, knows from the inside everything that we need. We have heard of him and believed in him and know him, but one day we will see him face to face. In the meantime, he accompanies us every step of our way, leading us on to our ultimate destination, the fulfilment of our humanity in God’s creation and God’s presence, where he has already “gone” in his resurrection body.
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 has gone.