Over the years: on the radio, after the Christmas morning service at St. Clement's. Or late the night before, while wrapping presents I could have wrapped earlier, but didn't. Driving along on our way to Grandma's. A child's voice begins it, always, his treble easily piercing the darkness -- always the same song, "Once in Royal David's City."
The service as we hear it, year after year, began at King's College, Cambridge on Christmas Eve in 1918. The dean had just returned from chaplaincy service in the Great War, that terrible war that ushered in the bloodiest century humankind had yet known. Few, if any, in attendance that night would have been untouched by loss of a family member or a friend in that war. The world was numb from it, and permanently changed.
Simplicity and innocence -- where had they gone? Where was our goodness? Had everything good drowned in blood, or was there something left upon which to build it again? I think of them there, listening and singing by candlelight in the dark church, that first service of Lessons and Carols: I am glad they didn't know that war would come again in just twenty years, that they would have to do it all again, that it would be even worse next time. I do not dare even think it as I watch them and listen to them in my mind, lest they hear me. It would be too cruel.
For now, let them hear the organ and the choir in peace. Let them listen to the readings: snippets of scripture read by people from various walks of life, from the weak to the mighty: a child, a student, a professor, the eminent director of the choir, a town leader, the dean himself. All of the readings are about the love of God as we see it in this ancient story of a baby born to a poor family in a small middle eastern country, words so familiar they have become liturgy to all of us, and so must enter our understanding through that door -- not from a place of observation or reason, but one of sense, memory, longing. Let the ancient words and ancient songs be balm to their battered hearts, and perhaps they will be balm to ours as well. Many things enter us through that door. We are not as rational as we imagine ourselves to be. And we are not alone.
Lastly let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no human can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one.
-- from the Bidding Prayer in A Service of Lessons and Carols,
Kings College, Cambridge. Written by Eric Milner-White,
Once in royal David's city
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, the scorned, the lowly,
lived on earth our Savior 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 who seemed so helpless
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 round,
we shall see him; but in heaven,
set at God's right hand on high;
when like stars his children crowned,
all in white shall wait around.
Words: Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895), 1848