Subversive Carols: Once In Royal David’s City

This series will interpret our beloved Christmas and Advent carols not as sentimental songs, but as a challenge to the status quo. Many of these subversive themes are already found in the lyrics, yet are often not pointed out. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols!

“Once in Royal David’s City” by Cecil Frances Alexander and Henry J. Gauntlett

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.

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And his shelter was a stable,
And his cradle was a stall;
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Savior holy.

And our eyes at last shall see him,
Through his own redeeming love;
For that child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heav’n above,
And he leads his children on
To the place where he is gone.

Juxtaposed to “royal David’s city” is the “lowly cattle shed.” While the song is titled “Once in Royal David’s city,” the notion of royalty is rejected and focuses on Mary and Jesus in the wretched manger. The child is found lying in the shed, put there by his mother, rather than sitting up on a tiny throne in a royal position. Mary is not a queen, but the mother mild taking care of her child. Thus the song’s title is a veil to the lyrics in the first verse.

The incarnation, a doctrine defined much later, is the notion that God gives up Godhood to make those on Earth whole by becoming a baby. Commonly, the radical notion of incarnation is overshadowed by theological understandings of the cross. “Once in Royal David’s City” causes us to linger a little while longer. The second verse is front heavy with heavenly royal theological language that it becomes meaningless by the end of the second verse. The high christology of Jesus as “God and Lord of all” is undone when Jesus is “with the poor, the mean, and the lowly.” Jesus gives up divinity to be with the socially rejected, those dangerous to the Empire, and the down and out. This verse ends with a Jesus-among-the-people and not a far off Jesus-in-the-heavens, and divinity was pushed to the side.

In the final verse, “Once in Royal David’s City” focuses so much on the incarnation that the cross is skipped over. Through Jesus’ redeeming love, not blood, we shall see him. The writers suggest that the “child so dear and gentle” as well “is our Lord in heav’n above.” Hence, the incarnation is ridiculous, the lying babe is also the savior: a child-redeemer. In conclusion, Jesus never grows up in the hymn, but stays a child who “leads his children on.”

What foolishness!

A powerless powerness.

A God-babe.

An incarnation through a weeping and poopy nursling!

Israeli Wall


2 thoughts on “Subversive Carols: Once In Royal David’s City

  1. Hi Tim, not sure if I agree with the ‘ridiculousness’ of this hymn – I wonder whether it was written for children which would explain no mention of blood, by golly it’s Christmas and let’s try and be jolly – also kids would be able to relate much better and feel ‘great’ about being kids, who, I suppose , in that era was supposed to be seen not heard – Merry Christmas! 🙂

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