This Advent season I am going to reflect on a hymn or carol daily as part of my spiritual practices. I am not sure where all these reflections will take me, but in conversation with my spiritual director, I am going to leave room for both “the head stuff” and “the heart stuff.” Some days might be more of one or another. I invite you to join me, as together we make space to listen, and be present, to sense what God might be up to.
Today’s a big day in my family. My dad is celebrating a great birthday this year, starting another decade of life. With this in mind, “Once in Royal David’s City” seems perfect today, not just because of the play on words with my dad’s name. It’s a beautiful and familiar tune and text describing the Christmas story, and it reminds me of past Advents and Christmases in my family.
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.
My grandparents collected nativity sets (or crechés) throughout their life and ministry together. That love for them, and love for Christmas decorations was passed down to my parents, and I must confess, to me too. Every year, right after Thanksgiving it was always time to figure out our game plan for when and how the decorating would happen during Advent. The inside decorations could go up most anytime. But the outside decorations took some extra work and planning, because in the Pacific Northwest, you don’t really want to be putting up lights and displays when it’s raining, because it makes it that much harder to have things stay put; for you to stay warm; and to effectively weather seal outlets and plugs with electrical tape.
My Dad, brother, sister, and I usually were the ones doing the outside decorations. This meant putting lights on the roof, which Allison and I try to emulate now, as my Dad showed us and taught us how to make it work on her home last year. It also means a number of larger outdoor nativity scenes, as those have grown over the years. There are wood ones, lit ones, multi-colored ones, silhouettes, and more. Of course, there are candy canes that line the driveway, and even Santa makes an appearance. Allison and I are no where close to my parents’ display, but maybe some day that might be us, enjoying the season through lights and fun, as well as the fun of family time getting it all set up.
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 meek and lowly, lived on earth our Savior holy.
I have written plenty before about my parents on this blog, but obviously, I’m in ministry and serving in the church because they always kept faith central in our life. They told the stories. They invited our questions and participation. They loved it when all of the kids put on their own “worship service” after Christmas Eve dinner before opening a few presents with Grandma and Grandpa, and between worship services at church. I am hoping that Allison and I are up to be parents like this, and can do half as good a job as my parents at this as we’ll soon be parents ourselves.
A sense of wonder and questions, were just about always fostered and welcomed growing up. I think my life is much richer because of that, and I am grateful for it. Since it is Dad’s birthday, I remember there was this one year where we had just terrible storms that knocked out power for days. We celebrated Dad’s birthday by flashlight and candlelight. And yet, I think he loved it. It was simple. It was special. And as always, Mom knew how to help all three kids play a role to make Dad feel loved.
And our eyes at last shall see him, through his own redeeming love;
for that child so dear and gentle is our Lord in heaven above;
and he leads his children on to the place where he is gone.
There have been other years that Dad’s birthday and Christmases haven’t been so easy. I am thinking especially of December 2006. My grandpa (Dad’s dad), had just passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in November. It really took a toll on Dad, because of all the questions, the wishes for more time, etc. But I remember that there was this one Christmas CD which really helped my Dad grieve and process that year.
This came to mind today on my drive into work, because I heard one of the recordings from that album, “The Lost Christmas Eve,” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra on the radio today. A couple tears and even a smile popped on my face, because I remember Dad talking with me about how he was processing, and how listening to this CD and especially their version of “What Child is This,” helped him process. (I included the link so you could read more about that recording, as well as the lyrics).
I was in college then, and had just about declared my majors in economics and religion. I remember thinking about that song’s text. It’s powerful. And it provided hope in the midst of the grieving, and a hard season of Thanksgiving and Christmas. (Little did we know at the time, that we would have two straight years like that.)
Not in that poor lowly stable, with the oxen standing by,
we shall see him; but in heaven, set at God’s right hand on high;
there his children gather round, bright like stars, with glory crowned.
This verse from “Once in Royal David’s City,” really connects for me today to some of the words from that Trans-Siberian Orchestra arrangement of “What Child is This.” Some of the lyrics go:
What child is this who is so blessed he changes all tomorrows?
Replacing tears with reborn years in hearts once dark and hollow
And could this be Christ the king whose every breath the angels bring?
Could this be the face of God, this child, the son I once carried?
In the dead of the night as his life slips away
As he reads by the light of a star faraway
Holding on, holding off
Holding out, holding in
Could you be this old and have your life just begin?
There’s more to that song, but I share these words from these two songs today, because they are on my mind. I share them because as I think about my Dad, and celebrate with him today, I remember celebrations past- especially the good ones, and the harder ones. Whether Dad knows it or not, I am grateful for all of those times because it’s just one more example of how my Dad has taught me not only the stories of God’s love and promises, like we know especially through the events of Christmas and Easter, but also how Dad has openly wrestled and lived into those promises.
My parents have both taught me that it’s okay to wonder, to question, to cry, to hope, to be sad… In the midst of all of these things, they have lived and continue to live in that hope and promise, a hope and promise expressed so well I think in the words of “Once in Royal David’s City.”
So, Dad, if you’re reading this, I am grateful for you, for all of the stories, traditions, and experiences you have made possible for me, with me, and shared with me, and I am looking forward to more of them together, especially as I get to learn more about what it means to be a parent, and you get to explore what life might be like as a Grandpa. (And no, that does not make you old, because you’re not!) Happy Birthday Dad, I love you!
Credit/Reference: Cecil Frances Alexander, Henry J. Gauntlett, “Once in Royal David’s City,” found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 269.
For more on the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, or their recording of “What Child is This,” see here.
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