Catechetical Christmas Carols, II: Jesus is Our Childhood’s Pattern
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. —Micah 5:2
‘Catechetical’ is the adjectival form of the noun ‘catechism.’ If you were raised in one of the confessional churches—Catholic, Lutheran, and Presbyterian, among others—you know what a catechism is. A catechism is a system of doctrine, arranged as a series of questions and answers. The priest or an elder, or a deacon would ask the question, and the student—the catechumen—would answer.
A catechism is the very definition of dry, tedious abstraction, so for centuries the Christian Church has been slyly sneaking a whole catechism of Christian doctrine into our hearts and minds with Christmas Carols. No one ever came to Jesus by reading Luther’s Catechism or Calvin’s Institutes, but hear a few quiet bars of What Child Is This?, in church or at Target, and even the atheist can barely resist the subtle seduction. Christianity colonized culture for Christ with Christmas Carols.
Cecil Frances Alexander was an Anglican preacher’s wife from Dublin in the nineteenth century. Just like with our third-grade Sunday School students, Anglicans in Dublin had to learn their catechism, and Ms. Alexander’s godchildren would complain about how boring that was, so she started writing poems to retell the twelve articles of the Apostles’ Creed in more winsome form.
She wrote All Things Bright and Beautiful, to illustrate the first article: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” To illustrate “He was crucified, dead, and buried,” she wrote There Is a Green Hill Far Away:
As a poetic gloss on the creed’s second article—“I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary”—she wrote Once in Royal David’s City “Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ, her little child.”
You know that song about the books of the Bible our third graders sing on Children’s Day? That’s exactly what this Christmas carol is: complicated theology distilled to its simple essence for young minds.
“Once in royal David’s city,” she writes. It’s her rhymed and metered sketch of that text from Micah I read a few moments ago, Micah who lived and wrote and gave hope 700 years before Jesus was born, about the same time as his more celebrated prophetic colleague Isaiah, and in the same place, the big city of Jerusalem, in dire jeopardy from the fierce warriors of marauding empires besieging the capital city when Micah comes along with his word from the Lord:
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Who would have thought that God’s valiant emancipator would come from the almost invisible village of Bethlehem, not even on any maps until its own celebrated native son David turned out to be the most cherished champion in Hebrew history?
“Jesus is our childhood’s pattern,” she writes to her ADD godchildren bored to distraction by the catechism, with her simple, lucid, juvenile verse. It is Carpenter Apprentice Jesus who shows us, with his calloused carpenter hands, and his dusty, sandaled feet, with wood shavings dusting his raven hair, and a carpenter’s pencil perched above his ear, and a hammer and awl jammed into his toolbelt, what divinity looks like and what humanity is supposed to look like.
I love Ms. Alexander’s central metaphor: Jesus is our childhood's pattern. She has to be thinking about a clothing pattern, right? The see-through paper with the right dimensions you lay over your cloth before you cut and sew?
From our childhood, Jesus is our pattern, the architect’s blueprint, the mariner’s sextant, the surgeon’s MRI. Every golfer knows you have to use some guide to line up your drive or your putt just so or you are never going to reach the flag at par. You lay your Calloway prone on the tee box to point yourself in the right direction, or you hold your putter up vertically to eyeball the hoped-for trajectory.
Have you noticed how much of our entire ministry at Kenilworth Union is devoted to the singular, integral purpose of teaching our young their childhood pattern? That’s what Amy Castino and Christine Hides and Greta Conner and Silvi Pirn and Katie Lancaster and Lisa Bond are doing here all day every day for about 60 hours a week—teaching our young their childhood pattern.
And do you think that that ministry is somewhat important in our current day when, from least to greatest, truth is sacrificed to expedience, facts are called fake news, and principles forsaken for selfish, private purpose? Does it seem sometimes that we are drowning in a deluge of deceit or a flood of falsehood?
Does it seem sometimes as if we have lost our way, or mislaid life’s pattern? I’ve told you before what Maya Angelou had to say about this. She said, “We have drifted into this never-never land, where we are up for grabs.” Are you up for grabs? Are your children up for grabs, or do their lives have a pattern, a blueprint, a map, a sextant?
Have we forsaken the pattern because it is too simple? Too childish? Too idealistic? Too unattainable? Daniel Striped Tiger, for God’s sake.
Are you going to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood? Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers? How’s that for doubling down on likability? An icon of innocence played by a paradigm of affability.
My daughter’s favorite song is “I Really, Really, Really Like You” by Carly Rae Jepson. I watched the video about six times yesterday.
If cinema is not your thing, you should read the 1998 Esquire article that inspired the film. It’s called “Can You Say...Hero?” Or read the story in The New York Times Magazine from this morning.
Did you ever wonder how Fred Rogers—a Presbyterian minister, by the way—did you ever wonder how Fred Rogers learned so much about the unstinting grace of Jesus? He was bullied as a child. He was sickly. He had asthma. He had rheumatic fever. They called him Fat Freddy.
And so every day of his adult life, Mr. Rogers made sure that he weighed exactly 143 pounds. Not 142, and not 144, but 143, because it was lean, and because it says “I love you” in numbers. “I”–one letter. “Love”–four letters. “You”–three letters. 143.
Mr. Rogers had a thing for unwanted stuff. He always visited flea markets and yard sales. On Nantucket where he spent a couple of weeks every summer, he always made a point of visiting the town dump, in case there was something cast off or unwanted that might still have some use and become a treasure.
The article in The Times this morning was written by a longtime friend of Mr. Rogers. She says, “He somehow lived in a different world from me. A hushed world of tiny things—the meager and the marginalized. A world of simple words, and a slowness that allowed for silence and joy.”
I love the way she puts that: A hushed world of tiny things—the meager and the marginalized. Like Bethlehem, which was little among the clans of Judah, according to the prophet Micah.
I don’t know; maybe that’s all too juvenile for sophisticates like you and me. We live in the real world, not the world of puppets and dollhouses. On the other hand, almost anything that matters in our lives happens in the hushed world of tiny things—the meager and the marginalized. Where Jesus spent his time.
Cecil Frances Alexander, the Anglican preacher’s wife, donated the profits from her hymnbook, Hymns for Little Children, to an institution for the deaf—how quaint is that! Even people who will never hear the music are better for it.
To live the songs we sing, to practice the poems we write, to walk the faith we confess.
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us he knew;
And he feels for all our sadness,
And he shares in all our gladness.
Maya Angelou, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, “The Voice of a Writer in Process,” David Hohnstrom, October 20, 1993.
Tony Junod, “Can You Say...Hero?” Esquire, November, 1998.
Slightly adapted from Jeanne Marie Laskas, “The Mister Rogers No One Saw,” The New York Times Magazine, November 24, 2019.