“What Child Is This?” is a Christmas carol with lyrics written by William Chatterton Dix in 1865 and set to the tune of “Greensleeves”, a traditional English folk song, in 1871. Although written in Great Britain, the carol today is more popular in the United States than its country of origin. You can hear it here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF2jfc4FhWY
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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
St Matthew 2: 1-6 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”’
There are a number of glorious Godly contradictions at work here.
The first is struggling with the familiar Greensleeves theme when married to a very unfamiliar, to me, set of lyrics. But the key contradiction is to be found along the fissures between the two passages: on the one hand, the utter vulnerability of the Christ child and on the other, the near total panic of Herod.
What child is this?
Herod knew. The populist and corrupt ruler wasn’t so far gone in his debauchery, that he – or his advisers – had forgotten the prophecies held so dear by his hard-pressed people. Overwhelming and unaccountable temporal power knows where the threats to its existence are to be found. More so, indeed, than those alternative sources of legitimacy do themselves.
The treatment of children in our world is pretty appalling: many have little access to the basics of life, leave alone education, cynical and profit-crazed corporations seek only to exploit insecurities and hesitancies and vile predators inflict the most evil cruelties on children and young adults. Yet when children speak out they can change the course of events. Think Greta Thunberg. Think Ruby Bridges (please look her up if you can’t recall her). Switching to fiction, think of that scene in To Kill a Mockingbird where Scout interrupts a prospective lynching. Here in East Anglia, I’ve just attended the Burston Strike School Rally which commemorates the longest industrial action in British history (1914-39). Who started it? Well, the children, of course, in support of their unfairly dismissed Christian socialist teachers.
What child is this? It is our better, vulnerable selves. It is truly the Christ in us. That’s who it is.
Prayer We know this, Lord as we read your Word about it all the time: Unless we change and become like little children, We will never enter the Kingdom.
Help us, through your blazing Holy Spirit, To convert such knowledge into the fires of our lives
And realise our burning desire to humble ourselves like your true children.