What Child Is This?
Each year I try to blog about a Christmas carol and how it may or may not convey the true facts about the Christmas story. This year’s carol is a simple question. And what a good question it is! Let’s go back, though, to the origin of this Christmas carol since this was not its original title. William Chatterton Dix was an English songwriter. At age 29 he was struck with a near fatal illness which required several months of bed-rest for his recovery. During this time he went into a state of depression but during that time also wrote several poems, one of which was titled The Manger Throne. That seems to be an oxymoron because how could a manger be a throne? Yet this oxymoron also served as a vehicle for one of the greatest Christmas carols of all time. I will include the text of what most feel to be the accurate version of the original since it exists in differing forms; (mainly because most hymnals I have seen eliminate the latter portions of the second and third verses replacing them with the latter portion of the first verse making it something of a chorus).
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 ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne 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 the song on high!
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy! Joy! For Christ is born,
The babe, the son of Mary!
The question “What Child Is This?” is a great substitute title for the original title. It simply asks the question and then proceeds to give the most straight forward answer without mincing words. This child is Christ the King. Then in addition to that (in the first verse) we are to haste (hurry up) to bring Him the laud or praise that He deserves.
The second verse captures some of the hidden meaning of the original title of The Manger Throne. Why did Jesus lay there in such a humble state of affairs where common animals were getting their meals? For the immediate circumstances, we should remember that babies didn’t normally lay in dirty places like this. For a baby to be found in such a place would seem obviously out of place. So when the angels told the shepherds that a baby would be found lying in a manger in the town of Bethlehem, they rushed to see if they could find such a sight as this. Of course they had a great many questions for Mary and Joseph who detailed the reasons for just such a state of affairs. They were both of the lineage of David and Joseph in particular was descended through the kingly lineage even through Zerubbabel. They were forced to travel to Bethlehem because of the census. Mary was still a virgin at this point and it seems that would have been shared with all who came to see the newborn baby.
But the songwriter is reaching deep into the theology of the humility of Jesus Christ. This was only a taste of what is to come. The ultimate humility of Jesus Christ would later be demonstrated on the cross. Lying there in the humble manger the silent word is pleading that He will later be humiliated to the point of death for sinful men like you and me. I wonder if the words born and borne are used here as a play on words on purpose. For Christ is born, but later the cross is borne by Christ. So why does this baby lie in such mean estate? It is the gospel message lying there in the manger that the Messiah came meek and mild according to prophecy, see Isaiah 42:1-4 with Matthew 12:15-21.
The last verse serves as an invitation for all to come to this humble King. Come peasant (shepherd), come king (wise men), both for the same purpose of exalting Him as King within your hearts. All alike no matter their social status may receive Him as a King. He is the King of Kings and brings salvation to all. The rich man comes to the poor lowly manger, the poor man comes to the poor lowly manger. We all alike are in need of the salvation that this poor baby lying in the manger brings to us all free of charge.
All in all, I must say that I am reaping the benefits about 150 years later of this man’s poor misfortune of near death sickness. This Christmas carol not only captures the true meaning of Christmas, but sees within the Christmas story the message of salvation that God intended to bring through His Son Jesus the Christ the Messiah the King. Through tragedy, God brought forth a Christmas carol that is sung by many famous people who may or may not grasp the depth of its true meaning. Yet here it is being sung during this season for all to hear. The rich, the poor, the peasant, the king, the invitation is still going out for us to enthrone this child who sat on The Manger Throne on the throne within our hearts. What a great Christmas carol!
Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13
-The Orange Mailman
P.S. In a strange twist of events, the only comic strip that I read today that mentions the name of Jesus is the quite liberal strip Doonesbury. In it, conservatives are portrayed as being more concerned about freedom to display a manger scene than the meaning of the manger scene. I have to confess, I think Christians get a little paranoid about our right to say “Merry Christmas” and someone else’s right to say “Happy Holidays”. If Christians would get back to portraying the character of Jesus, that meek and mild servant of God who did not consider a manger to be too humble of a throne, maybe we could get people to listen to us that Christians are simply sinners saved by a God who humbled Himself. There is the humility of lying in a manger, and the humility of dying on the cross. When are Christians going to learn to give up their rights and join Jesus in His humility? That is the essence of the gospel.