My favorite carol of all time is What Child Is This, both for its wonderful melody and for its beautiful lyrics. Both the tune and the lyrics have a haunting quality to them- haunting meaning that there is something spiritual looking to connect with you, or hunting you. Unfortunately, most modern renditions change the lyrics to make it nicer. They treat the second half of the first verse as the refrain, and ignore the parts about Jesus suffering and dying. But the that’s the part that sets it apart.
We’ll start with the second half of the second refrain. The words nails, spears shall pierce him through/ the cross be borne for me, for you sets Christmas- the nativity of Jesus- in its proper place. Just like the nails and spears pierced Christ, those words pierce me, run me through. They remind me that the serious work is yet to be done. They remind me of my own calling to suffer for others in imitation of Christ. They remind me that salvation comes from the incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection of the Son of God. The incarnation- the Word made flesh as a babe, the son of Mary- which we celebrate today is the first step. Even as we celebrate the joy of God’s arrival we prepare ourselves for the next step. They make the second verse even more poignant- the center of the song. It is one thing to be born onto poverty. It is another to be born into poverty as a condemned man.
Which changes why we bring incense, gold and myrrh; not because he is poor, but because he will suffer and die for our sins. A blanket and food is good for the poor. Gold, incense and myrrh is for a King and a sacrifice. For the Word made flesh, who dwells among us. Which comes to two really amazing lines- Come peasant, king to own him and let loving hearts enthrone him. God could force his kingship on us through his power, and we could not prevent him. But he does not. The kingdom of God is only found in the hearts of those who accept him as king, and by doing so we inherit all of the blessings that come from the kingdom of God. This ownership of God is as available to the poor as to the rich. It is a consolation to the poor and a challenge to the rich.
And I love the line raise, raise a song on high. Nothing is so good for celebration as the singing of a song. And I love the way it coincides with the virgin singing the lullaby. The quiet, peaceful song of a mother intermingles with the joyful song of praise captures another mystery of God, the way power and praise can coincide with peace and tenderness at the same time.
So let’s sing with the shepherds and the angels in our song of praise for the Son of God become Flesh. Merry Christmas!
What Child is This
What child is this, who, laid to rest / On Mary's lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet /While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King /Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring Him laud /The babe, the son of Mary.
Why lies He in such mean estate / Where ox and donkeys are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here / The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spears shall pierce him through / the cross he bore for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh / the babe, the Son of Mary.
So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh / Come, peasant, king, to own him.
The King of kings salvation brings / Let loving hearts enthrone him.
Raise, raise a song on high / The virgin sings her lullaby
Joy, joy for Christ is born / The babe, the Son of Mary.
This, this is Christ the King/ Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring Him laud/ The babe, the son of Mary.