The Christ Child in Carols - and in Us

The traditional Nine Lessons and Carols opens with the carol “Once in Royal David’s City.” The words were written by Cecil Frances Alexander in 1848; they first appeared in the U.S. in Cantica Sacra, Hymns for the Children of the Catholic Church, in 1865. In the lessons and carols service, a single boy treble sings the opening stanza unaccompanied; gradually everyone else joins in—which is to say, it ends up not a children’s hymn, but one sung by all of us.

    After participating in this service, a young priest in Dallas spoke of the remarkable words we had just sung. Although in contemporary hymnals the words of many hymns have been changed (sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not), we had sung older versions—with which he was not familiar. For instance, the third stanza of “Once in Royal David’s City” speaks of Jesus’ growth in childhood in this way: “And, through all his wondrous childhood, / He would honor and obey, / Love, and watch the lowly maiden / In whose gentle arms he lay.” The baby in his mother’s arms is watching the woman he will honor, obey, and love though all his childhood, a childhood that is “wondrous.” The stanza concludes with a call to all Christian children to be “mild, obedient, good as he.”

    But this is not a hymn in which adults are telling this to their children! No—and here’s the wonder my friend was seeing—the hymn speaks of all who are singing it as children. That is to say, in singing it we identify ourselves as children. The next stanza begins: “For he is our childhood’s pattern.” “Our” childhood, the childhood of those who are singing, the childhood that is our present reality! We continue: “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.”

    Children know the mixture of life already—it is not an adult secret. What mixture do I mean? That of “tears and smiles.” Children also know something adults forget: In the big world around us, in the universe!, we are fundamentally “little, weak, and helpless.” Adults have not become masters of the universe; at most, and at worst, they have just forgotten who they are. Yet things are not hopeless. Children grow; day by day Jesus grew; we who sing this carol at Christmas can grow still. . . .

    The above is part of a “Pastoral Reflection” I wrote for the Human Life Review. You can read the rest of it here:

    Out & About. This column will not appear again until 2024. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy reading Morte d'Urban by J. F. Powers. As I have said before, the “Urban” whose death is named in the title is a priest of the order of St. Clement, a group known for nothing much. Urban has designs to improve them—which all collapse after his head intersects with a golf ball. Powers wrote deadpan, drily humorous stories and novels; Morte d’Urban won the National Book Award in 1963—after which it fell into ill-deserved obscurity. We will discuss it at 5pm on Sunday, January 14, at the Good Books & Good Talk seminar at St. Matthew’s. But it’s worth reading even if you don’t live in Dallas.


The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin. Ph.D., is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Friendship: The Heart of Being Human" and "A Post-Covid Catechesis.: