What child is this?
William Chatterton Dix (1837-98)
Tune: GREENSLEEVES, Anonymous
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 worship and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring him praise
The Babe, the son of Mary.
Why lies he in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Come, have no fear, God’s son is here,
His love all loves exceeding:
Nails, spear, shall pierce him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you:
Hail, hail, the Saviour comes,
The Babe, the son of Mary.
So bring him incense, gold and myrrh,
All tongues and peoples own him,
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let every heart enthrone him:
Raise, raise your song on high
While Mary sings a lullaby,
Joy, joy, for Christ is born,
The Babe, the son of Mary.
The tune of this delightful carol is one of the most famous English song tunes, and has even been attributed to King Henry VIII. Shakespeare mentions it twice in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and the Worshipful Company of Stationers described it as being ‘new’ in 1582. It may well be older than this, and was used liturgically long before the nineteenth century when Dix wrote the words we have here. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Mistress Ford rails against Falstaff: “…but they do no more adhere and keep place together than the Hundredth Psalm to the tune of 'Green Sleeves” (Act 2, Scene 1), and this comment reveals that there may have been some attempt to use this quintessentially English tune liturgically
During the English Civil War of the Seventeenth century, the tune of Greensleeves was used in a song called ‘The Blacksmith’, or ‘The Brewer’, and the Cavaliers, loyal to King Charles, had various alternative texts set to it. The English diarist Samuel Pepys recounts singing one such version on April 23rd 1660.
The original song had at least thirteen verses on the theme of unrequited love, recounting the gifts that the sad lover has lavished upon the ungrateful lady, he accuses her of breaking her vows, of having spurned his loyalty and bravery, until, resigned to the loss of her love, he sings:
‘Tis I will pray to God on high,
That thou my constancy mayst see,
And that yet once before I die,
Thou wilt vouchsafe to love me.
Ah, Greensleeves, now farewell, adieu,
To God I pray to prosper thee,
For I am still thy lover true,
Come once again and love me.
At this time of year, mindful of the use of ‘true love’ imagery in songs such as “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and “Tomorrow shall be my dancing day”, we can reflect on the theological and spiritual dimensions of unrequited love. Our relationship with our heavenly Father has not always been one of constancy and love, there have been rejections and denials of God throughout history. Just as the people of Israel turned away from God and spurned his love as recounted in Isaiah and Jeremiah, we too are very capable of rejecting the loving advances made to us in the redeeming person of Christ.
Yet, these are not the words that we sing at Christmas time today. Rather we have a specially written text by William Chatterton Dix. He was also the writer of “As with gladness men of old”, a fine Epiphany hymn. Dix was from Bristol, but spent his working life in the marine insurance business, in Glasgow, writing hymns in his spare time. He had a particular interest in Abyssinian hymns and the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church. “What child is this” was first published in Bramley and Stainer’s Christmas Carols, New and Old in 1871. His carol retells the story of Christmas in a rather unusual question and answer form:
The question “What child is this…?”, opens the carol, and there are various answers that we are given. Firstly, the child asleep in Mary’s lap, lying like any baby who can only rest secure swaddled up close, is indeed her son: ‘The babe, the Son of Mary’. This fact is reiterated at the end of each verse. Whatever else we may say about this child, all appears normal and natural, a baby asleep. The gentle lilt of Greensleeves, manifested in the six-eight rhythm (two sets of three notes in a bar), musically portrays the rocking motion that parents use to get their little ones to sleep. But Dix’s slightly sentimental opening, with sleeping child, angels singing and shepherds watching has a stronger line to push as we progress through the carol. Just as the original folk-song, “Alas my love” has a bittersweet flavour, so too does this carol. For in verse two we hear of the ‘mean estate’: the poor location of the stable, where, as sinners we are entreated to be fearful. Be afraid, Dix warns us, be very afraid, for this silent, sleeping child, though he be the Son of Mary, is the Word made Flesh. The ever-so human description of verse one is giving way to the theological meaning of this baby, of whom we may well ask “what child is this?”.
As we approach Christmas we can ask questions about Jesus, sticking to the sentimental, shallow answers, or we can peer deeper, attempting to really explore the significance of the Word made Flesh, of Christ our King, and the way in which the human baby son of Mary can be both of these. While the choice is ours, here in this carol at least, we can never avoid the sense that there is more than humanity being described here. And if we can grasp the dual nature of this human-divine child, asleep in Mary’s arms, but also awake to the sin of the world then we too will wish to make haste to ‘bring him laud’ and raise his song on high!
Let us pray:
Christ our baby-Lord, whose name is above all names, and before whom every knee shall bow, may we grow to understand the meaning of your incarnation, and the power of your self-giving arrival in our fragile world. Grant us simplicity of devotion, and depth of insight, so that we may never trivialise your love for us, nor lose that sense of mystery that fills and fuels our journey of faith. Amen.
Artist: Kelly Willard
Album iWorship: The Essential Christmas Collection
Licensed to YouTube by
[Merlin] Absolute Label Services; CMRRA, UMPI, Public Domain Compositions, Kobalt Music Publishing, and 10 Music Rights Societies