What Child is This?

Perhaps better known in the United States than in its country of origin, England, the popular hymn What Child is This has been a mainstay in common and liturgical Christmas hymnody. Many of us can sing the hymn by memory and with the familiar Greensleeves tune, many more can join right in. However, it wasn’t until I encountered the hymn in the Roman Breviary (or “Liturgy of the Hours”) that it struck me more powerfully than the familiar hymn we sing today. In fact, doing just a bit of research will show that the original author, an insurance salesman stricken by illness (Dix, Wm.), had come to an awakening in his Christian faith and would go on to write many hymns, including this one. The words, however, over time had been revised to perhaps “soften” the tone of the hymn during this joyous season. After all, this is the birth and coming of Our Savior, so we need not be concerned with death, right?

Read the original text, as it appears in the Christmas Carols Old and New (c. 1871):

What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
What Child is ThisWhom 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 Christians, 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 a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

The original hymn better captures the joy of the Incarnation of Christ. Not only are we joyful that Christ is born, but we understand that because of his birth to human life, death, and resurrection, we are joyful to welcome him as our Savior and Redeemer. So, this Christmas, let us be thankful for Christ our Savior and not keep too far from our minds the Joy that His Redemption brings to us as well.

May you and yours experience a Joyous Christmastide!

Reference: Bramley, Henry R, and John Stainer. Christmas Carols, New and Old. London: Novello, Ewer, 1871. Musical score.

Photo Credit: http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/w/h/whatcist.htm, last accessed 23-12-2015.