‘Once in Royal David’s City’ – Celebrating Jesus or controlling children?

There can be few lines in Christmas carols that are more disturbing than the third verse of Once in Royal David’s City:

And through all his wondrous childhood
He would honour and obey
Love and watch the lowly mother
In whose gentle arms he lay
Christian children all should be
Mild, obedient, good as he.

A celebration of Christmas is turned into an attempt to control children, based on the claim that Jesus was “obedient”.

This is not perhaps surprising. The carol was written by Cecil Frances Alexander and appeared in her Hymns for Little Children in 1848. Other hymns that she introduced in this book include All Things Bright and Beautiful, containing the verse “The rich man in his castle/ The poor man at his gate/ God made them, high and lowly/ He ordered their estate.”

That verse, suggesting that the social order was created by God, is now usually omitted when All Things Bright and Beautiful is sung in churches. But we still seem to be singing Alexander’s child-controlling lines at Christmas.

The only biblical story about Jesus’ behaviour as a child shows him being distinctly rebellious, spending his time debating in the Temple when his parents expect him elsewhere. Of course, it all depends on what you mean by “obedience”. Obeying God involves resisting the sinful structures of a world in which power is based on violence, hierarchy and coercion.

I suggest that instead of

Christian children all should be
Mild, obedient, good as he

We could go with

Christian folk are called to be
Wild, rebellious and free.

OK, I’ve been suggesting that for a while. I’ve also been questioning the dreadful theology of Christmas carols in general. Now I admit I’ve gone further: I am feeling so frustrated with Once in Royal David’s City that I have had a go at rewriting the whole carol. The original has some good bits, such as acknowledging Jesus’ humanity: “tears and smiles like us he knew”. So I have not changed everything! (You can read the original words here).

I don’t claim to have Cecil Frances Alexander’s skill as a songwriter, but I do reject her theology. Here’s my alternative version:

Once in Royal David’s city,
Power was turned upon its head,
Where an almost-single mother
Had to improvise a bed,
Mary defied tyranny,
Jesus came to set us free.

He appeared on Earth from Heaven,
Born a child where life was tough;
Though he is our God and saviour,
They laid him in a feeding-trough.
With the poor he lived and died
And showed that he was on their side.

And through his chaotic childhood
He would love and laugh and pray,
Learnt the power of love and justice,
Knew there was another way.
Christian folk are called to be
Wild, rebellious and free.

For he is our human pattern,
Day by day like us he grew,
He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us he knew.
And he cries with us in sadness,
And he cheers with us in gladness.

And our eyes at last shall see him
Through his own redeeming love;
For that child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord, here and above.
And he leads us every day,
Guiding us into God’s way.

Not in poverty or privilege,
Living under tyranny,
Shall we see him, but in heaven
When the whole world’s been set free.
When like stars his children crowned
All in white shall be around.

One response to “‘Once in Royal David’s City’ – Celebrating Jesus or controlling children?

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