Once in Royal David’s City (ELW Hymn #269, 1 & 2)
Grouch Marx said, “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” While you’re working on that, there’s also the frog saying, “Time’s fun when you’re having flies.” Incidentally, this notion appears (less foolishly) in Christmas carols, too, like “Cold December flies away.” Sunday we sang “lo! the days are hast’ning on” and while lighting Advent candles we’re singing “Each winter as the year grows older, we each grow older, too.” And some of us say thanks for the reminder.
Yet time does indeed pass. Innovations quickly become ancient history. This is the 7th year for these Advent midweek gatherings with my little carol spiels. Since long-ago-2008, we’ve been through almost every one in the Christmas section of the hymnal, and eight of ‘em we’ve done twice.
Nevertheless, there are a few in that time whose stories we haven’t heard. Two such, you have the great fortune of hearing first this very evening. Ooh! And since we’re referencing ancient history, we’re going ALL the way back to when I was in elementary school, when my history overlaps this carol’s history. That may sound strange, though it’s just saying what’s important with the carols is the intersection and merging with our own stories, in becoming part of the shape of our lives. Hymns don’t only worm into our ears; we also get to know them by heart, and then live in rhythm with the faith we sing. (A side note: that idea of becoming one or uniting with us, of conforming isn’t just carols. It could define Christmas itself, of God taking on our shape or form, becoming human so we may know God and be known by God and live accordingly.)
So I first heard this carol in elementary school when I was in the esteemed ECBC, the Eau Claire Boys’ Choir, directed by my dad. We were prepubescent, in the technical sense: pre-puberty, before our voices changed, our facial hair came in, and I—for one— became the manly man before you now. Boys’ choirs like this go way back to churches in the Middle Ages, since females weren’t usually allowed to sing, and the only other way to keep those beautiful high notes flowing was with castrati, and if you want to learn about that, ask Rebecca.
In my Boys’ Choir days, I learned that in Cambridge, England at Kings College Chapel’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, this has been the official opening since 1919, with a boy singing the first verse solo a capella. You can still tune your radios to NPR for the broadcast on Christmas Eve. In not-so ancient history at St. Stephen’s, Nathan Bartels led the solo for us as a 6th grader back in 2009. If you’re again looking for a more manly detail, you might like to know that the Lessons and Carols originated when a bishop was trying to keep the men of his parish out of the taverns on Christmas Eve.
For both sides of that, let’s do the first verse in falsetto or high voices, and then the second in your manliest voice. Let’s sing.
On Christmas Night (ELW Hymn #274, 1 & 2)
You might like to know that as stodgy or foolish as we sometimes seem at church, we’re not entirely unrealistic. Our hymnal leaves out the original stanza 3 of that last carol, because of its weird portrayal of what children are like or even should be like. The original wording said:
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.
So, again realizing that we’re not nearly so perfect as Jesus was (which, after all, was the whole point in us needing him to come to be with us), I’ll tell you some more ancient history of my childhood. This merges less with this carol, but just is a tangent with the tune’s name. You see in your hymnal at the bottom right it is called “Sussex Carol.” That always makes me think of Senora Narciso, the Spanish teacher at my middle school, who was also the advisor for student council. Because I’m a little sinner and always have been, I remember a student council retreat, sitting at supper with some cute girls. Mrs. Narciso asked where they were from. They said “Sussex.” She thought it sounded much more charming than “Eau Claire,” but I remember liking it because of “sex” was part of the name. Enough of that embarrassing confession.
Anyway, I like this tune, this Sussex Carol, because it’s bouncy and fun. It fits the lyric about “great mirth,” and also that amazingly faithful joyful reminder that, because of Jesus, we have no real ultimate reason for sorrow and sadness.
Some history: This also has fairly England-y connections, used frequently with the Nine Lessons and Carols. And the tune comes to us through Ralph Vaughn Williams, a great English musician associated with more than a dozen hymns in our hymnal. In 1906 for the Anglican Church he compiled the English Hymnal, one of the most important hymnals ever. Vaughn Williams was trying to preserve traditional folk music, so he traveled the English countryside and listened, copying down tunes. This one gets its name because he heard a woman singing it the area in far south-eastern England called Sussex. (I’m still childish and a sinner, so enjoyed learning this week some towns in that Sussex County are Horney Common, Great Bottom, and Balls Green.)
For all the English-ness, the text of our carol came a couple centuries earlier from Ireland. Luke Waddinge was a Catholic bishop whose family lost their castle when Oliver Cromwell and the Church of England was waging wars and confiscating property, persecuting and even beheading Catholics.
Somehow, even in spite of that kind of history of Christians treating each other badly and all our smaller sinfulness, there’s still room to rejoice in the angels’ song of goodwill and peace. We need that reminder, so let’s sing.