ONCE IN ROYAL…..
Some thoughts following a surfeit of “lowly Cattle
W. John Green
The use of this word to introduce the subject has serious implications.
The author betrays his inability to provide a precise or even an estimated
date for the occurrence. This suggests that he could not be bothered to find
out, in spite of St. Luke’s telling us that it was “when Quirinius was
governor of Syria”. Reference to Roman historians could, we would have
expected, enabled the date to be estimated within fairly close limits. Had
the report commenced with, for instance, “In the XIV year of the reign of
Tiberius Caesar…..” this would have eliminated any doubt as to its being a
matter of history, rather than a work of fiction. “Once” does have
associations with fiction, “Once upon a time” being an accepted introduction
to the fairy tale, the sine qua non of which is that it did not
really happen. Well¸ perhaps it didn’t – not like that anyway.
IN ROYAL DAVID’S CITY.
The word “royal” can apply to any person who can trace lineage, however
tenuous, back to some king. e.g. the “Michaels” of Kent.. There may have
been several royal Davids among the Hebrew dynasties. It is only by
inference therefore that we can assume that the author is referring to King
David of Israel, c.1000 B.C. The use of the word “city” is also misleading,
since at the time of that David it appears to have had only one well, quite
incapable of supplying the needs of a city. Bethlehem had the status of a
village rather than a city. This is borne out by the story of the shepherds
who managed to come in from the hills and find Mary and Joseph and the babe,
apparently on the same night. Had Bethlehem been a city, they might have
taken weeks to locate a single birth taking place other than in the city
On examining the details, one cannot help feeling that the Romans were a
rather stupid lot. Why was it deemed necessary for everyone claiming descent
from King David to get to Bethlehem, to “register”? (It should not be
necessary to point out that “David’s Line” mentioned in another carol, is
not a reference to some privately owned light railway providing a tourist
attraction in the Judean hills.) All that a person should have had to do to
register was to answer a few simple questions about their ancestry, wherever
they were. Could it be that Joseph, during the nine long months since the
Annunciation, had re-read the Prophet Isaiah and thought that he had better
get out of Nazareth so as to get the right location? It is strange, too,
that a man depicted as an ideal, considerate husband, should have left it
until the last minute and got the manger organised just in the nick of time.
STOOD A LOWLY CATTLE SHED.
This is an unwarranted assumption. St. Luke tell us only that the infant
Jesus was “laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn”.
St. Matthew, telling of the wise men’s visit, says that they had to go into
a “house” in Bethlehem to worship the infant Christ. From this and what we
know of eastern hospitality, it is more than likely that an innkeeper,
unable to provide facililties, arranged for Joseph and Mary to stay at the
equivalent of the house of “Mrs. Jones just down the road and who does B&B”?
In the days before Slumberland mattresses, a hay-filled palliasse could
provide quite a comfortable resting place. Some of us found this out during
the war. A manger, commandeered to support it in view of the shortage of
beds, would not be any hardship for a small child.
There is no justification for assuming that the manger was in a shed at
all, much less for the assumption that oxen were standing by. No mother in
her right mind would be so heedless of hygiene as to let her new-born child
risk getting mixed up with bovine effluvia. Furthermore an inanimate object
such as a shed, cannot be described as ‘lowly’ which word means humility of
condition or nature. One could speak of a ramshackle hut or broken-down
bothy, but there is no scriptural evidence for any of this.
HE CAME DOWN
This assumes a flat earth and a geo-centric universe. Had Christ been
born in, say, Dunedin rather than Bethlehem, his imagined journey would have
been in a diametrically opposite direction. This might have caused
Christology to go in a different direction for centuries!
HIS SHELTER WAS A STABLE AND HIS CRADLE WAS A STALL
A stall is a compartment for one animal in a stable or shed. It is
difficult to see how a child could be “cradled” in a stall. Anyway what
happened to the manger? As regards the “stable” – see above.
WITH THE POOR AND MEAN AND LOWLY
The N.T. would suggest that these were not the only acquaintances of “Our
Saviour Holy”. He associated also with Pharisees, Sadducees, Rich Young
Rulers etc. He was sufficiently acquainted with King Herod’s way of life to
condemn it and with the banquets and high life of the rich to draw on this
knowledge for parables. He was also on such terms with Nicodemus and Joseph
of Arimathea that they arranged his burial with no expense spared (thus
fulfilling that which was spoken by the prophet etc.).
FOR HE IS OUR CHILDHOOD’S PATTERN etc.
As a child, this verse always seemed to me to be unfairly used to justify
parental oppression and its expectation of unreasonable behaviour. We are
told, elsewhere that “…the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he
makes.” What unnatural behaviour for a newly born child ! Nevertheless
several of the more sentimental carols enjoin the baby to ‘hush’. Does this
mean that he was making some noise other than crying ? Suggestions ?
Reciting the 39 articles or Psalm 119 ?
Then comes the crunch line – “Christian children all must be mild,
obedient, good as he.” The operative words, of course, are “must” and
“obedient”, suggesting that unless a child is totally subservient to its
parents’ every whim, it is sinning against God and is therefore eternally
damned. This is perhaps expressed in the words, “You should be ashamed of
yourself !” which do not encourage happy relationships.
NOT IN THAT POOR LOWLY STABLE etc.
Does anyone really expect to see “Him” in that unlikely setting ? So why
is it necessary to make the correction ? As for the “Oxen standing by” – see
above. In my case the days prior to my entering heaven – if I am given that
privilege - are becoming few, so I hope and pray that it will not involve my
being “crowned like a star” – whatever that means, and “waiting around”,
dressed in white, presumably for all eternity. I once had to wait around for
half an hour, dressed in white, in a hospital, prior to having an X-ray
examination. That was boring enough!
In the days when, to the majority of working class people, wearing white
was totally impracticable in view of the nature of their work, and at the
same time a symbol of their oppressive “white collar” bosses, this may have
appealed.. I would now regard it as placing an unacceptable limitation on
ways in which I might even enjoy the hereafter. One can only wait and see!
Still, it’s a good tune.
© The Estate of William John Green, 2004