Once in Royal David's City

two verses from Cecil Alexander's Once in Royal David's City (1848), as sung by Sufjan Stevens (2002):

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, oppressed, 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.

The King came. But the King didn't come to kings, other rulers, smaller lords or governors. The King didn't make his entrance in the halls of power, didn't visit the wealthy or the religious or the righteous. This King entered the world as a stranger and an outcast whose parents were forced to travel across country so caesar could have a better idea how big his empire was and how best to tax it. Then this King was born in a barn because his parents couldn't even find a hotel room.

And that's the drama of the incarnation. The King of kings and Lord of lords doesn't enter our world in the company of the well-to-do. Indeed if he had that might have reinforced their pretension. Worldly kings and lords don't tend to appreciate other kings and lords, except perhaps as peers. But this King is peerless, and is famously underwhelmed by the lifestyles of the rich and famous (with apologies to Robin Leach). And so, in a scandal to our values, in an offensive disruption of the things we prize most, this King appears as a "dear and gentle" child.

I don't want to overstate my point - this kid who was born in the company of cattle to a relatively poor couple was also supposed to descend from the line of king David. But David himself came from humble beginnings - short, young, shepherd chosen above all his older brothers. David, however, gradually moved away from those beginnings and eventually took on the role of the classical king that he was chosen to counteract (cf. the Bathsheba incident and the census). But this new King, God's true and ultimate King, represents a totally new vision, a vision he never corrupted nor ever will corrupt (in spite of how regularly his later followers would corrupt it).

The scandal of this King's birth, the scandal that "With the poor, oppressed and lowly, / Lived on earth our Savior holy," is eventually carried forward and brought to a climax when this King, this Prince of Peace, is publicly executed by lesser (false) kings in order promote a lesser (false) peace.

May we remember this season that we are not our own king, and that the kings we revere are at best pale imitators of the True King. And may we live in the light of the scandal that this effectively homeless child is the "Lord in Heav'n above", and that this is, in the words of the angel in Luke 2, "good news of great joy that will be for all the people."

painful steps so slow...

from Sara Groves' adaptation of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (2008):

You beneath life's crushing load, Whose forms are bending low, Who toil along the climbing way With painful steps so slow;

Look now, for glad and golden hours Come swiftly on the wing; Oh, rest beside the weary road And hear the angels, and hear them sing:

"Peace on the earth, goodwill to men From heaven's all gracious King!" The world in solemn stillness lay To hear the angels, to hear them sing.

Life is not all sunshine and rainbows. It's sorrow, striving, struggling, suffering (and, undoubtedly, other words that start in 'S'). In Romans 8 the apostle Paul seems to think that the world itself is taken up into this struggle: he says that creation is groaning - like from childbirth! - in anticipation of what one day will be but has not yet come to be.

And, in spite of whatever alternative messages we may conjure, this is where we live as well. This groaning awareness of what is not, of what God has left unfinished. This is the first part of what Advent is about, waiting in (sometimes painful) anticipation of what is not yet.

But - and this is a big 'but' - Advent is never celebrated without knowing that Christmas is right around the corner. Though we still live in an unfinished world, we live in a world that is being finished, a world that God has inhabited in a human person. And in a sense he's done so simply to say, "Peace on the earth, goodwill to men / From heaven's all gracious King!"

The world that is still being finished is here in the humility - or humiliation? - of a baby reduced to being born in a filthy barn, really, finally, fully finished. May the scandal of this good news haunt our waiting in the coming weeks; indeed may it haunt our every thought until Christ is born anew in our lives and in our world. And may the materialistic pretensions of this season be undercut by the material reality of what we're celebrating - the Savior of the world being born surrounded by dead grass and animal feces.

Animal feces? I'm pretty sure there's an apt metaphor for much of what we do around Christmastime somewhere in there...