Sunday, December 31, 2006

For he is our childhood's pattern

In the English Hymnal, in the children's section called At catechism, there is a hymn that begins "Once in Royal David's City...". It's become rather well known as a result of the fact that it's sung at the beginning of the Nine Lessons and Carols from King's on Christmas Eve every year [prompt for another rant, about the fraudulent service put out on TV on Christmas Eve under the description "Carols from King's", but I'll save that for another day, or perhaps another venue].

My rant here is about the hymn in the New English Hymnal, number 34, which pretends to be Mrs C.F. Alexander's hymn "Once in Royal David's City". It only has one dagger, which implies that very little damage has been done to it. But I suggest we take a look at it and you can see what you think. Is it minor damage? Or is it interference of a political nature? My view is that it is politically and theologically motivated bowdlerisation of a rather severe sort.

We should start by noticing that the hymn is no longer prescribed for children. This might be because the NEH doesn't have a section for children. Or it might be because the Editors have got something against recommending hymns as suitable for children, especially when they describe the childhood of Christ in terms that might suggest he was a role model for Christians to aspire to in their youth.

Certainly, Mrs Alexander had chosen that motif as the key theme for her hymn. The point of the central verses of the hymn is that Jesus came to earth in a very lowly and unpretentious form, and that though he came to "Royal David's City" it was not as a royal child that he grew up, but rather as one just like us. And, furthermore, he did not issue the commands but obeyed them: he was mild, loving and obedient. It was, on the one hand a "wondrous childhood" and on the other hand it was one just like ours. Indeed it was wondrous perhaps only in how extremely ordinary it was; how Jesus too grew up loving and watching his mother and doing what she told him to do, even though he was in fact something much greater than that behaviour would suggest. This theme picks up on the idea of kenosis: Christ emptied himself of all that power and superiority, and became as if he were subservient first to his parents and ultimately to those who put him to death. The theme is especially appropriate to the reading of the passage about Jesus staying behind in Jerusalem at the temple (the Gospel reading we had today), which finishes with that oh-so-resonant sentence "And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them." (Luke 2:51).

Mrs Alexander combines that motif of kenosis with the idea that the childhood of Christ is also a pattern for us to follow. It is at the same time startling that one who is God and Lord of all should be obedient to his human parents, and also inspiring. For because he was a child like us, we can see how it is possible for us to follow in his footsteps, accepting our limitations and being as sanguine about it as he was. For he is our childhood's pattern. Day by day like us he grew. It is that fact, the fact that he was genuinely human and had to grow up as human children do, that makes him not just a Deus ex machina saviour, but one who shows us the way to become like God ourselves. We do this by learning to model our lives on his from our earliest days.

Those were the themes of Mrs Alexander's excellent and theologically sophisticated hymn.

Unfortunately most of that has been removed or lost in the current version in the New English Hymnal.

Here's what we used to get (two verses following on from "with the poor and mean and lowly, lived on earth our saviour holy"):

And, through all His wondrous childhood,
He would honour and obey,
Love and watch the lowly maiden,
In whose gentle arms He lay:
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He.

For He is our childhood’s pattern;
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.

And here instead is what we get in the NEH:

And, through all His wondrous childhood,
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.

Obedience has gone (so it's not at all clear why we continue to sing this hymn on the Sunday when we get that wonderful reading from Luke about the boy Jesus). So has all the imagery of him loving and admiring his virgin mother: this is a sad loss not only in terms of Christology but also in terms of the theology of our devotion to the Mother of God (for which this idea that we are modelling ourselves on Christ's own childhood devotion to his mother is aetiologically helpful). And we have also lost the motif of Christ's childhood as an archetype of what a Christian childhood might be like.

Instead we get a focus only on the fact that Christ grew up like us and experienced tears and smiles as we do too. These observations were useful in the original context, when what was important was that in emptying himself of his godhead Christ had become weak like us and submitted to human authority.

In the absence of verse 3, however, these thoughts become simply sentimental. The kenotic theology has all but gone. We tend not to see anything here in the bowdlerised version except a soft-centred attempt to domesticate the wonder of the Incarnation. All the tough thoughts have gone (both the tough thoughts about how far the God of heaven had to submit to weaknesses and obligations quite alien to his powerful nature, and the tough thoughts about the necessity of obedience in our own lives, which can sometimes be required even when in theory we might be in a position to know better than those whose authority we are asked to accept, as Christ's example tellingly shows).

Why did they commit this iconoclasm on a hymn that is a classic part of the nation's residual Christian heritage, and which many of us know by heart? Could it be that the editors were afflicted with some kind of ideological anxt? My suspicion is this: that they are very much against the idea that christian children should be told to be mild, obedient or meek. This is not politically correct is it? There are two things that make them afraid to say that. One is that meekness and mildness has a bad press (at least as a message to give to children). We are not allowed to say that because it is supposed to be a Victorian ideal that has been grafted onto a Christian theology that didn't extol the virtues of meekness and mildness. So all whiffs of Victorian values must be cut mustn't they?

Must they? Funnily enough, of course, we are still allowed to see that Jesus told his disciples to put up their swords when he was taken in the Garden, and gave his back to the smiters. As Mrs Alexander shows so deftly, that is all part and parcel of the same obedience with which he returned to Nazareth, and with which he accepted the bitter cup in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is not an easy obedience, nor a comfortable mildness. It is done in the hardest of places and in the hardest of ways. I do not see why our children should not be brought up to respect, to admire, and to try to imitate that open-eyed and sacrificial obedience.

There's another fear as well I think: the second thing that drives the political correction of this hymn. This is the assumption that children will grow up into nice human beings if they are left to be themselves, and should not be told by adults how to behave or what it is to be a Christian. In fact, even adult theology should not be delivered to them, because their innate spirituality will lead them to become more authentic believers if we don't tell them what to think or how to lead their lives.

So (according to that kind of political correctness) we mustn't say that the ideal childhood is one in which children listen to adults and respect their authority. No: children must be left to wander and experiment in the darkness, until by some chance they stumble across the things that make sense of Christianity (the things that it has taken educated Christians twenty centuries of philosophical theology to work out).

Well, we'll see if that's a sound way to build up intelligent believers who can maintain the great traditions of the Church and teach their flocks in the next generation.

Personally, I'd prefer to give the children the resources to engage in intelligent critique from a position of understanding.

And I also think that a degree of obedience and discipline is an enormous advantage (not just in the imitation of Christ, but also for achieving one's potential as a thinker and as a devout believer).

So we shouldn't be so coy about obedience. A child who has no one to respect and obey is a deprived child. Surely Mrs Alexander is right that part of what Jesus did in taking our manhood was to become like a child, and part of being like a child is needing someone to tell you what to do, and then finding sometimes that it is a struggle to obey. Was Gethsemane the first and only time that Jesus found he was obliged to do something that was uncomfortable, and even perhaps not obviously helpful? I think not. In fact, one could start by investigating the story of the wedding at Cana.
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