Biblical Perspectives Magazine, Volume 24, Number 13, March 20 to March 26, 2022

Hymns of the Faith:
"What Child Is This"

By Dr. Bill Wymond

A Presentation of First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi,
Dr. Ligon Duncan, Dr. Derek Thomas, and Dr. Bill Wymond

Dr. Wymond: Good morning! This is "Hymns of the Faith," brought to you by Jackson's First Presbyterian Church. The minister of the First Presbyterian Church is Dr. Ligon Duncan. Stay tuned for "Hymns of the Faith."…Here with "Hymns of the Faith" is Dr. Ligon Duncan.

Dr. Duncan: Good morning, Bill, and good morning, Derek. I am Ligon Duncan, and the three of us are delighted to be here with you for "Hymns of the Faith." We are in the Christmas season and delighting in some of these wonderful songs that are sung around Advent and around the celebration of the birth of Christ.

We've already started looking at Christmas carols, and today we have come to one of the pinnacles of English carols. It's got a very, very famous English melody that dates back to the 1500's — Greensleeves. When you hear the first few notes of that song, you know immediately what the carol is. Why don't we just go ahead and hear that carol right now, Bill? [Dr. Wymond plays.] And you can guess what that Christmas carol is! It's What Child Is This, and that's the beautiful English melody, Greensleeves. And I guess, Bill, that one reason…I'm assuming that there's a folk melody behind that, too, and I'm guessing that one of the reasons we know that is that the tune, as far as we understand, emanates from the 1500's; and during that same time, the great English choral writers are people like Purcell, and they're doing these very legato, simple, solemn, somber kind of things. So we know this is not coming out of their production, it's coming out of English folk music.

Dr. Wymond: Well, the time signature, which is 6/8, is a dance rhythm. And as you say, Purcell and all the others were doing very somber kinds of music…very beautiful music. But this tune was originally a secular folk song. Even in England, as well as in Germany, the line between sacred and secular wasn't that different. Today we would have problems sometimes with using a secular tune, but back in that time and later when these words were put to this tune it seems that that wasn't so much a problem.

Now, the tune Greensleeves has its own text, and it was a love song. I'm just going to read a little bit of the lyric. It says,

"Alas, my love, you do be wrong
To cast me off discourteously.
For I have loved you well and long,
Delighting in your company."

So many of the folk songs talk about "lost love" or leaving a city. They're about loss. O Sacred Head, Now Wounded comes from a tune which originally was O Innsbruck, I Hate to Leave Thee. [Dr. Duncan laughs.] One of our most solemn, somber songs that we use for communion, the tune comes from a love song that talks about a loss in love.

This particular ballad was from the 1500's, and it was actually registered in London. I guess this was like a copyright office — at the Stationer's Company, in 1580. But it was a much, much earlier tune. It was registered as "a new northern ditty of the Lady Greensleeves." So Greensleeves was actually the title given to a lady…it was something about a lady. And in Canterbury Tales, it's explained that green (the color) was used for "likeness of love." I won't go into the details of this…this lady may or may not have been reputable, but nevertheless the tune is lodged way back there in lost love.

Dr. Thomas: If it has its roots in Chaucer, she probably isn't! [Laughter…"That's true!"] But for me, Bill, you know Greensleeves is, as I was saying before we went on air, the quintessence of English-ness. At the Promenade concerts in the Albert Hall this year, this 2008, for example, in the final night, a famous Welsh singer, sang a medley of four tunes representing England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland; and of course for England he sang Greensleeves.

Dr. Duncan: You've got to tell us the other three…

Dr. Thomas: Londonderry Air, for Ireland, for sure; and…it was a rendition of the Welsh national anthem.

Dr. Duncan: And you don't remember the Scotland?

Dr. Thomas: I do not. Greensleeves is such a hauntingly beautiful tune, and interestingly ES IST EIN ROS' ENTSPRUNGEN (forgive my German pronunciation), the tune for Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming was also a sixteenth century tune, and very similar in ways…that haunting melody that begins both of them.

Dr. Wymond: Well, your great English composer, Vaughan Williams, has set Greensleeves, and you remember it starts off with a flute, just going …[plays]…and then the harp strums like this…[plays.]

Dr. Duncan: And it kind of ramps up the mystery before you even get to the tune…

Dr. Thomas: Now, Robert McCutchan says "this is a fine, rollicking tune," which makes you think he's listening to something other… [Laughter.]

Dr. Duncan: Well, you can see how it could have been played in a rollicking way…you know, with country instruments, with a fiddle, and some of the things that they might have been playing with. But it does lend itself to that beautiful lush sound that Vaughan Williams gives it as well. But you can see with the rhythm of it how it could be made a little more perky than it sometimes is played at Christmastime.

Dr. Wymond: That's right.

Dr. Duncan: Derek, the text of the song is a scene. Maybe you could walk us through the scene. It's a scene that hundreds and hundreds of households have in their homes this time of year. So many people have nativity scenes, and those nativity scenes typically picture the visit of the Magi — of these wise men from the East — to a stable where Jesus is, and where Mary and Joseph are. And the whole text of the hymn — and I don't know where the text comes from, offhand; I know that it was adapted by William Chatterton Dix in the mid-nineteenth century …don't know all the story of where that came from, but he's picturing a scene. Talk us through that scene.

Dr. Thomas: Yes. No nativity scene in our house, but that's another story! Dix was the son of a Bristol surgeon, and for all of his life as an adult he was the manager of an insurance company somewhere in Scotland — isn't that right? I seem to have read that somewhere. He wrote a number of hymns, and some carols. But this is a typical Christmas card scene again, and again, in the second stanza, this reference to the Baby Jesus being silent —

"Good Christian, fear; for sinners here
the silent Word is pleading."

"No crying He makes," in Away In a Manger… So it's that somewhat questionable, in my mind, thought that the Baby Jesus was perfect and therefore didn't cry. But that aside, it's a beautiful description of the manger scene with "ox and ass feeding." But immediately there comes in that line (immediately after that picture of the nativity in Bethlehem, and the manger and the Baby Jesus, and surrounded by the ox and ass),

"Nails, spear, shall pierce Him through;
the cross be borne for me, for you"

…the radical change from that calm, beautiful, peaceful picture to the violence of the cross in the same stanza.

Dr. Duncan: I think that the beauty of this tune to us (because I do think that the tune is almost mesmerizing, even to us Americans…we love to hear this English tune) is it hides something of the starkness and the boldness of these words. These words are pretty bold for 1800's, Victorian era, Britain. I mean, as you pick up on that second stanza, it starts off with "Why lies He in such mean estate…?" There is no romanticizing of that scene of the manger. It's not cute and wonderful and Currier & Ives! The text recognizes that there is a huge disproportion here. Here's the King of the world, the Maker of the universe, lying in a trough where ox and donkeys feed. And then there's this beautiful…it's almost like he's addressing the audience. You know, you've been listening to him tell the story, and now he turns to you:

"Good Christian, fear; for sinners here
the silent Word is pleading."

And so he relates what Jesus is doing, even in His deprivation in His infancy, to His work on behalf of sinners. And then as you said, Derek, he takes you right to the cross:

"Nails, spear, shall pierce Him through;
the cross be borne for me and you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the son of Mary."

And I particularly like Christmas carols that take us to the cross, and they don't just show us the incarnation but they take us to the atoning work of the cross. And this carol does that.

Dr. Thomas: I like the fact that it's evangelistic. That exhortation for "Good Christian, fear; for sinners here the silent Word is pleading." And you've been lulled especially by the tune into this sense of rest and peace and calm, this beautiful picture of a baby lying in a manger — somewhat strange, surrounded by ox and ass and so on, and the Magi — but then all of a sudden you're being exhorted to really answer this question that it begins with, "What child is this?...Who is this?" and by the end of course, in the third stanza, He is "the King of kings," who brings salvation.

Dr. Duncan: It's significant, isn't it? That's really how evangelism in the book of Acts begins, with the question "who is this?" And it really presses home who Jesus is as a part of the gospel presentation, and this carol does this as well. Bill?

Dr. Wymond: Our choir commissioned a well-known American composer, Jane Marshall, to write an anthem for us for Christmas, and she took this theme of "what child is this?" Her pastor, John Thornburg, had written a poem that says, "What child is this, and who am I because of this child?" And he goes on to say, "Will I make this Child peripheral, an accessory in the wardrobe of my life? Or will I invite this Child to live in the home which is my heart?" I thought it was interesting poetry there. And what we did was we sang the carol first (What Child Is This? ) and then we sang her anthem, which is a commentary on the carol.

Dr. Duncan: Hmmm. The line pointing to the nails and the spear and to the cross is followed by a third stanza that kind of continues that invitation, Derek.

"So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh;
Come, peasant, king, to own Him…."

So it beckons you to own Christ, to embrace Christ, to do what the Puritans would have called to 'close with Christ': to acknowledge Him as your King and to give Him the glory due His name. It's an interesting way to sort of extend the call and the invitation and to be evangelistic, as you were saying, Derek.

Dr. Thomas: I often wonder what Americans make of the very Englishness of the politics and the social structures in some of these hymns… "peasant and king." But in England, or in Britain…I mean, it certainly evokes from the very lowest to the very highest, and that we must all come the same way to Jesus Christ; that there's no advantage in being king of the land, or to being a lowly peasant in the land. We must all come by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.

"Let loving hearts enthrone Him" — which is a beautiful depiction I think of what it means to exercise true saving faith, to crown Christ as King in your heart. It's a beautiful carol.

Dr. Duncan: I think the commentary that you just mentioned, Bill, and this discussion about how the very familiarity and the beauty of the melody and the arrangement of this carol can sort of lull you into sleep and defend you from the impact of the text is a good reminder for us, as we sort of go into the Christmas season, to as Christians really work hard not simply to enjoy the sentiment that comes with these tunes. Some of us have been hearing these tunes since before we can remember hearing these tunes, and there are all sorts of associations in our hearts — probably most of them good, sometimes sad — with events in our lives, and those associations and emotions can sometimes overwhelm the powerful truth that's contained in the text. And I think it's a good reminder to us as believers to think hard about what we're singing when we sing them. I guess the beauty of knowing these hymns so well is we hardly have to think about the notes we're going to sing at all. They just come naturally. But we do need to make sure that we're remembering the text as we sing it.

Are there any tips or tricks that you give to the choir? Because surely choir members struggle with this kind of thing from time to time. They're so familiar with the music that they can almost sing it without thinking about it. Are there things that you say to the choir that might help us as congregational singers when we're singing something very, very familiar?

Dr. Wymond: Well, what we try to do is to put all of this Christmas music in context. And so year after year in our church, we've borrowed something from England which is a Lessons and Carols Service, which starts out with a discussion of the fall of man into sin. It starts with the first promise of the gospel in Genesis 3, and it goes through various of the Old Testament prophecies — one of which often we use that refers to "the stem of Jesse," which we call today "the Rose of Jesse." And so putting it in a context like that I think helps us a lot.

It just fascinates me to see how Christmas has become universal. It's become globalized. In, for instance, Japan, which is certainly not a Christian country, they have big celebrations of Christmas and they use all of the music too. And I know I've said it before, but at one time I used to sort of not like to hear all these Christmas carols at the malls and so on, because I thought they were being trivialized. But then I started listening to the words — Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, which is so powerful — and I thought people are hearing these truths and they don't even know it. But they are just drilled into their heads, and are a tool that the Holy Spirit could use at some point.

Dr. Duncan: I think your point about context is important. I remember a number of years ago the Baptist churches had a little theme…I don't know whether the North American Mission Board came up with it and promoted it to their churches…but it was "Jesus is the reason for the season." And the point of the little campaign was to say that the season had become secularized, and let's remember that Jesus is the reason why there is a Christmas season.

Well, then another Baptist minister friend of mine did a sermon series on "what's the reason for the reason?" and what he was really doing is doing exactly what you were saying. He was giving a context. Look, it's fine and well to say that Jesus is the reason for the season, but what's the reason for the reason? And the whole sermon series was about the fact that the reason that Jesus had to come into the world is because of sin. And so he was able to put a gospel framework of treating the issue of the fall and sin in explaining the incarnation of Jesus Christ. That actually is a really good thing to remember that protects you from the sentiment of these scenes that we sing about — that the reason this Child is in the world is to die for our sins. And that's a good way of sort of protecting us.

Derek, how about you? Counsel for those who are singing very, very familiar songs and hymns and carols during Christmas season? On how they can really be singing them from the heart as opposed to sort of going through the motion and enjoying sentiments?

Dr. Thomas: Yes, it's always concentrating on the words. We can so easily — not just Christmas carols, but any familiar hymn — we can do it almost by rote. And sometimes I like to sing well-known hymns without looking at the words; but sometimes that can put you into a sort of cruise control. And I always notice Sinclair Ferguson when he's singing hymns and leading in a congregation. You watch him, and he has his eyes buried in his hymnbook as though he's never seen this hymn before. And I've often wondered if that's what he's doing — he's really concentrating on the words here.

This is a tricky tune to sing. It's full of — I don't know what you'd call them. Half-notes, or whatever. It's quite tricky to get the words in synch with the tune. It's a familiar enough tune, but for me that means I really want to concentrate on the words because I don't want to just lapse into just concentrating on the tune. I don't know whether as a singer — I'm speaking to you now, Ligon — when I try to sing parts (and I'm not a very good singer, but occasionally I try to sing the bass line)… But it takes so much concentration for me to do it that I've lost track of what it is I'm singing because I'm concentrating so much on trying to get those notes right.

Dr. Wymond: Then I think I wouldn't try to sing the bass line! Actually, for basses though who can do it, it's a comfortable thing because it falls better in their actual pitch range, and that's why they do it so often. I guess you're talking about these grace notes in here… [plays]…

Dr. Thomas: And then you're tempted at the end of the line to add another one: "In Mary's lap is sleep-ing."

Dr. Wymond: Yeah, there have been so many notes and suddenly there are none. It's kind of interesting here. We go through different versions of this in the second half, which goes… [plays]. In the older version, it would have been … [plays]…so all those things have changed with time.

Let me throw out a quick question to you. We've been talking about such elevated things. Derek, if you were to have a nativity scene in your home, would you…historically…would you include the wise men at that nativity scene, presenting their gold and myrrh?

Dr. Thomas: No, because they shouldn't be there in the chronology of the Gospels! [Laughter.]

Dr. Wymond: Because they came later. So it's just the shepherds and the animals.

Dr. Duncan: The wise men came when He was — what? — almost two, Derek?

Dr. Thomas: But you have to have Santa and the reindeer, and…. [Laughter.]

Nativity scenes in the neck of the woods I live in have all kinds of strange things in them. Yes, it's interesting in nativity scenes how the chronology of the Gospels gets changed.

Dr. Wymond: Everything's conflated, isn't it? It's all brought in there.

I just…as a little piece of trivia…I do recognize the fact that Dix, as you said, was an insurance man. And there have been a number of lay people who have made significant contributions both textually and musically. I think of the American composer, Charles Ives, who was an insurance man all of his life. So many, many lay people, or non-professionals, have done important things for music and for texts.

Dr. Duncan: Yes. In fact, the heading in the Ryden material that we were reading on English hymnody is "English Laymen Who Wrote Hymns." And then it begins to tell about Dix, who, as Derek had already indicated, was a marine insurance salesman in Glasgow, Scotland, which would have been a big port town. But it's a wonderful hymn and a wonderful carol. Bill, why don't we hear it? What Child Is This.

Dr. Wymond: Singing What Child Is This for us this morning is Gena Everitt.

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.

©2013 First Presbyterian Church.

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