What Child Is This?

The carol “What Child Is This?,” sung to the old English tune Greensleeves, has always been a favorite.  Recently, however, I heard a sermon from PTS colleague Derek Davenport that caused me to see this carol in an entirely different light.  I had always heard, and sung this, to the arrangement above, with “This, this is Christ the King” sung as a repeated chorus.  However, it turns out that this is not the original form of the lyric.

The words are by William Chatterton Dix, who was born in Bristol, England on June 14, 1837, and died September 9, 1898, in Cheddar, Somerset, England.  Dix managed a marine insurance company in Glasgow, but poetry was his passion: he wrote more than 40 hymns over the course of his life, of which this one, written in 1865, is certainly the most famous.

Dix’s lyric is restored in the new Presbyterian Hymnal, Glory to God.  You’ll find his original words below.  Notice in particular how the refrain in the second verse poignantly answers the question this verse poses: “Why lies he in such mean estate?” In this form, this carol is a beautiful proclamation of the whole gospel of Jesus Christ.  I present it with my hopes and prayers for you all in this coming year.  Have a glorious Christmas, and  blessed New Year!

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 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.



2 thoughts on “What Child Is This?

  1. Steve–I appreciate the sharing of the history and the reality the text has been revised…but I connect better with the newer edition…….the older text seems locked in a ransom theory of atonement…the newer one permits the story to unfold as we know from the beginning that even in the silence Jesus is inviting us to embrace the kingdom of God…

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