What a privilege it is for all of us to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. One of the famous Christmas carols which has become world known and sung during Christmas is the carol “What Child is this?” There is a beautiful and inspiring story behind this carol to recollect during this season of Christmas.
William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898) was born in Bristol, England. His father, a surgeon, had written a biography of the poet, Thomas Chatterton, which accounts for the middle name that he gave his son. It also reveals the affection for poetry, which the father passed on to his son. As a young man, William moved to Glasgow, Scotland, where he pursued a career managing a marine insurance company (a company that insured ships and related interests).However, his true passion was poetry.
Dix fell seriously ill, and was confined to his bed for an extended period. He underwent a true spiritual crisis during this illness, and spent much time in prayer and the reading of Christian literature. He came through the crisis as a true man of faith, and devoted much of his later poetry to Christian themes. He wrote a number of hymns, at least three of which have survived to this day, the other two being As with Gladness, Men of Old and Alleluia! Sing to Jesus.
What Child Is This? was derived from a longer poem, The Manger Song. It was first published in 1865 in Britain, and quickly became popular in the United States as well. The song begins in the manger with the child sleeping on Mary’s lap, accompanied by angels and shepherds. But the second verse asks why he would be lying in such mean estate. It goes on to speak of Jesus’ purpose to plead for the salvation of sinners and alludes to the nails and the cross that he will face as a man.
The third verse moves to a joyful tone, asking us to bring Jesus incense and gold and myrrh. e reason is simple. The King of kings has come to bring us salvation, so we should respond joyfully in his honor.
Greensleeves, the tune associated with this carol, is a traditional English tune that preceded What Child Is This? by at least a century probably more. It began as a love song, and may have been used with popular drinking songs. Today we hear it sung both as a love song and as a sacred song.
“Greensleeves” was written in a minor key, which gives it a sad feel in the First two lines. However, while the key remains minor, the last two lines take on an enthusiastic, joyful character that contrasts nicely with the earlier lines.
Dix died in Cheddar, Somerset, England in 1898 and was buried in the church cemetery there. What Child is this? The question, using Critical zoological Imagination, one of the principles of Biblical Interpretation I use in my study of the Bible can be viewed differently with different but unique connotations.
First, the question could be viewed merely as a question of rhetoric. What child is this? Really? It is Jesus, of course. We all know that even the kids know that. What one does not understand is that questions are not just for solving problems and requesting new information. Sometimes questions make a point. We call those “rhetorical questions.” Other times the form of a question expresses awe and wonder about something we know to be true, but and almost too good to be true. It’s too good to simply say it directly like we say everything else.
When the disciples found themselves in a great windstorm, with waves breaking into the boat, and Jesus calmed the storm, they said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41). Key knew the answer from Scripture. Only God himself can still the seas (Psalm 65:7; 89:9; 107:29); this, somehow, must be God. But it was too wonderful just to say. This new revelation of Jesus’ glory was too stupendous to keep quiet, and too remarkable not to say it in some fresh way. God himself had become man and was in the boat with them. Who then is this?
It is in a similar vein that we say at Christmas, “What child is this?” We know the answer. It has been plainly revealed. And it is almost too wonderful to be true. God himself has become human in this baby, and has come to rescue us. The eternal Word has become flesh and dwells among us (John 1:14). It is clear and certain. We must say it straightforwardly and with courage. And it is fitting that at times, like Christmas, we wonder, we marvel, we declare in awe, “What child is this?”
Second, what prompts this question of awe, is not only that God has become human, but that he has come among us in this way in this surprising poverty. The First stanza gives us the glory we expect: Angels greet him with anthems sweet. That is the kind of arrival we expected. Heavenly hosts sing. The heavens are alight with song. But even here there is a glimpse of the unexpected. The angels sing to shepherds. That is odd. Angels, yes but shepherds? Shouldn’t there be dignitaries, especially from among the regal and religious establishment of the Jews, who have purportedly long awaited the coming of their Christ? Shouldn’t shepherds take a number behind the king and his court, the priests and the scribes, and the Jerusalem elite?
The unexpected is there in the First stanza, but it is the second where things get especially peculiar. Why does the newborn lie “in such mean estate” in the very place where “ox and ass are feeding”? Why a stable? Why this place of poverty? Why not a palace, but the lowest of all structures?
Third, the question beckons us beyond lowly Bethlehem to a life of even greater lowliness. And not static lowliness, but increasing lowliness. Here at Christmas we celebrate that Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men . . .” (Philippians 2:6–7). But why? Why this surprising appearance among us? To simply show us it can be done? Surely this is more than a stunt. Why has he come? What is he here to accomplish?
Christmas commemorates more than his birth. It also presses us forward in his story, beyond the lowliness of the manger to a life of lowly sacrifice with no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58) and Finally to the ultimate lowliness, an odious public execution, condemned unjustly as a criminal: “. . . and being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).
Some may suspect we are souring the brightness and joy of Christmas when we sing, “Nails, spears shall pierce him through . . .” Can’t we leave that for Good Friday? But the Word-made-flesh, coming without a cross in view, is no good news. The light and joy of Christmas are hollow at best, and even horrifying, if we sever the link between Bethlehem and Golgotha. “. . . The cross he bore for me, for you.” This time, he comes not in judgment, but mercy.
He did this for us. Christmas is for us only because his life is for us, and his death is for us, and his triumphant resurrection on the other side is for us. “Nails, spears shall pierce him through” does not ruin Christmas. It gives the season its power. The Cradle and the Cross are interconnected.
Fourth, the question makes us to realize the universality of the child. Lowly shepherds are here. And when the lofty of his own people will not bow the knee, foreign dignitaries traverse far, over Feld and fountain, moor and mountain, to honor him by laying down their treasures. Peasants come, and kings. the weak and the strong. the wise and the foolish. the low and despised kneel side by side with those powerful and nobly born. The manger is for all because the cross is for all. And this is all too much for simple fact-ending, cool-headed analysis, and calculated articulations. this is the stuff of singing. this is the time to say, to declare in the awe and wonder of worship, What child is this?
Conclusion: Isaiah, the Hebrew prophet who was believed to have lived about 700 years before the birth of Jesus Christ had answered this question” What Child is This?” in Isaiah (9:6-7) when he prophesied: For unto us a child is born, a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forever and forevermore…. Born in Jerusalem, Israel, he was said to have found his calling as a prophet when he saw a vision in the year of King Uzziah’s death. Isaiah prophesized the coming of the Messiah Jesus Christ. He was believed to have written chapters 1-39 in The Book of Isaiah with the balance of the book authored by several other prophets. Chapter 9 contains a well-known prophecy about the coming of Jesus Christ. Verse 1 describes the northern part of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was the First area attacked when nations like Assyria came from the north. Isaiah prophesied that this area known as “the Galilee” would not always be so troubled. Isaiah promised that God would send them light and joy through the birth of a child who would break the “yoke of [their] burden” (Isaiah 9:4) and be called “Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” (v. 6). All of these names refer to the Messiah the King of Kings and this prophecy was most completely fullfed when Jesus spent most of His mortal ministry in this Galilee area (Matthew 4:12–16). The prophecy continues to be fulfilled as the government, or rule, of Jesus Christ continues to eternally expand when individuals accept Him as their king and become eligible for the blessings of eternal life (Isaiah 9:7). This is indeed the answer to the question “What Child is This?