Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris – in– Ossory on Wednesday, 8th December 2010
“The word became flesh and dwelt among us ” John 1:14
A friend’s wife died from motor neuron disease in 2004; she was 54. I missed the funeral, but a colleague told me of the very deep theology that had been explored by my friend when he had spoken at the service. Losing our spouse at such a young age would have rendered most of us unable to say anything, but he had asked to speak and had spoken with power. He had talked of Saint Paul saying that being with Christ is far better; he had talked of this life as but a gestation for the true life to come; and he had asked that the congregation join in the singing of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’.
Requesting the singing of a Christmas carol in August must have sounded strange to the hundreds of people who packed the church for the funeral, but my friend explained why his favourite carol was relevant to a moment of deep sadness. He read through the words of the penultimate verse and said that this was what he believed; this was the truth on which he set his hopes:
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.
The carol came from the pen of Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander whom we have met before.
Born in Dublin in 1818, into a gentry family, her father Major John Humphreys had served in the army and became land agent to the Earl of Wicklow and later to the Marquess of Abercorn. Immensely talented, she began writing verse at early age. She caught the eye of John Keble, a clergyman, poet, and professor at Oxford, who was to launch the Oxford Movement, the High Church movement that brought new life to the Church of England. In 1848, when she was 30, she published a collection of her poems called Songs for Little Children. It was edited by John Keble and contains three of the best known hymns in the English language, this evening’s “Once in Royal David’s City”, “There is a Green Hill Far Away”, and “All Things Bright and Beautiful” – all three sprang from her desire to explain the Christian faith to children.
Cecil Frances Alexander didn’t just write for children though. She contributed poems and French translations to Dublin University Magazine under pseudonyms. Her poem the “Burial of Moses” appeared anonymously in Dublin University Magazine in 1856 prompting Alfred Lord Tennyson to say it was one of the few poems of a living author he wished he had written.
Her marriage to the Revd William Alexander at Strabane in October 1850, caused great concern to his family, she was six years older than he was, and apparently her date of birth was altered to conceal this fact. William became Bishop of Derry in 1867 and went on to become Archbishop of Armagh. Mrs Alexander threw herself into whatever challenge she met, becoming actively involved with the Derry Home for Fallen Women, with the development of a district nurses service; and in visiting the poor and sick.
Mrs Alexander would have been a major figure in any age, the fact that her hymns are being sung around the world 150 years after they were published as a collection for children is a mark of her extraordinary talent. The fact that Mrs Alexander’s hymns are being sung around the world 160 years after they were published as a collection for children is a mark of her extraordinary talent. It is hard to imagine much that is being written now still being around in 2168!
When we look at ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, we see Mrs Alexander drawing on various Bible verses for her inspiration. The story of the birth of Jesus is only told by Saint Matthew and Saint Luke; Saint Matthew tells the story of the Magi coming from the East and Saint Luke tells of the child in the manger and the shepherds coming from the hills.
The first verse and the first four lines of the second verse are a telling of the story, but in the last two lines of the second verse, we see Mrs Alexander beginning to try to convey the message of the Christmas story:
with the poor and mean and lowly
lived on earth our Saviour holy.
writes Mrs Alexander, taking up the thoughts expressed in the opening chapter of Saint John’s Gospel that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, that God took on human life and lived that life amongst ordinary people.
When we turn to verses three and four, there is perhaps a sense of the Victorian sentimentality that became attached to children. Until Victorian times, children were just seen as younger versions of adults, but Victorian writers and politicians created a sense of children as people with a vulnerability that should be acknowledged and an identity that should be cherished.
‘And through all his wondrous childhood’ begins the third verse, ‘For he is our childhood’s pattern’, begins the fourth. Mrs Alexander is not drawing an idealized version of the child Jesus but is inspired by Saint Luke Chapter 2. In verse Luke 2:40 when Jesus was taken to the Temple as a a baby, we read, ‘And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him’. In Luke 2:52, when Jesus goes to Jerusalem as a twelve year old, we read, And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men’.
Mrs Alexander did not write merely to tell the story, but to challenge those who sang her words. We have become so familiar with her writings that we sometimes fail to take them with the seriousness that she intended. How many of us would have thought, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ a suitable hymn for a funeral? How many of us would have thought it as something that spoke of our hopes for the future?
In the season of Advent, when we look forward to the coming of Jesus at the end of time, the closing verse of the carol, moves us from the beginning of the Christian story to its culmination at the end of time:
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;
There will be many occasions in the coming weeks when we sing or we hear the words of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ – each time we hear it, may it ask us questions. What do we believe? What do we hope for? Where is our life going? Do we expect to join him in the place to where he has gone?