“What Child Is This?”

Not only do Christmas carols tell the story of the birth of Christ, but many explain why He was born. Indeed, when the angel appeared to the shepherds the very reason he said he was bringing them good news of great joy was because a Savior was born for them.

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
Luke 2:10–11

What Child Is This? speaks very plainly of the death of Christ in its second verse. When W. J. Wiegand illustrated the song for an edition of Christmas Carols New and Old you can see he depicted the birth and the death of the Lord Jesus. Centered underneath Joseph, Mary, and the newborn Christ, is the crown of thorns and a whip, on the left are the nails for His hands and feet, and on the right is the spear and the reed with its sponge of sour wine offered to Christ as He hung on the cross.

The lyrics of Christmas carols do vary in wording because they have been handed down over the years, but while I was looking through various lyrics and videos for What Child Is This? I noticed the lines about the nail, spears, and cross were omitted or changed. I grew up singing those lines, and I was appalled to see what in all likelihood were deliberate omissions. As we celebrate the birth of Christ it’s important to remember why the Son of God became a man.

Wiegand clearly thought the central message of the carol was the death of Christ for “sinners here.” For the good news of great joy that our Savior was born, let us “haste to bring Him laud,” “hail the Word made Flesh,” and have “joy for Christ is born.”

Here are the lyrics from Christmas Carols New and Old:

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 Christian, 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 the song on high,
The Virgin sings her lullaby:
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!

Image: Illustration by W. J. Wiegand from Christmas Carols New and Old (1871) compiled by Rev. H. R. Bramley, Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and Dr. John Stainer, Organist, Magdalen College, Oxford.

Copyright ©2020–2022 Iwana Carpenter

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