#8 "Once in Royal David's City" (music: Henry J. Gauntlett, lyrics: Cecil Francis Alexander, based on Luke 2:4-7, 11-12)
Lyricist Cecil Francis Alexander, despite having three male names, was an Irish woman who wrote the lyrics to this hymn as a poem, publishing it (along with other entries in the LDS hymnbook such as "There Is a Green Hill Far Away") in a collection titled Hymns for Little Children. It was set to music a year later.
Knowing that the lyrics were intended for children sheds new light on the hymn. The words are simple; the most complicated of them might be "lowly" and "redeeming," neither of which are especially difficult. ("Manger" is probably harder than either of those, but it's used so frequently in connection with Christmas that it hardly counts here.) The story told is simple, too. Listen to the first verse:
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.
I like to explain what's going on in these posts, but these lyrics are so plain and clear that there's not really much for me to add. So rather than do that, I'll say that for me, the simplicity of the lyrics heightens the simplicity of the scene. There were no frills, no fanfare to accompany the birth of the child. There was a manger filled with hay where he was laid. There were animals and, in time, shepherds to witness the arrival of their King. That was it. He did not come in power and majesty, but as one of us to live with the "poor, and mean, and lowly." The angels sang and announced His birth, but most people wouldn't have known He was different from any other child.
I've been asked before if my heart was in such a condition that I would recognize Him if He were to appear today. I hope that I would, but sometimes I wonder. I wouldn't be surprised if many of us didn't, especially if He came in a stable again. The third verse, though, tells us this won't always be the case. One day, our eyes "at last shall see him through his own redeeming love." We won't see Him through our own imperfect and clouded vision, but as He sees us. When we the earth are made pure, we will be filled with His love. We will be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.
That's quite a transformation. I don't know that it will take place all at once, and the phrase "at last" suggests that it won't be, but if it were, I imagine the realization of how the world looks when viewed through His redeeming love would be overwhelming. Maybe that's why it isn't intended to happen all at once. Maybe that's why He "leads his children on," one small step after another, "to the place where he is gone."
Previously in this series
#9 Angels We Have Heard on High
#10 It Came upon the Midnight Clear
#11 O Little Town of Bethlehem
#12 With Wondering Awe
#13 Joy to the World
#14 While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks