One of my favorite Christmas carols growing up was the song “What Child is This?” It tells of the birth of Jesus, and in its purest form goes like this (to the tune of “Greensleeves”):
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!
I first came across it as a ten-year old, finding it in a beautifully illustrated Christmas carol book my family had. I fell so in love with it that I memorized the lyrics and practiced the tune on the clarinet. Perhaps therefore people could forgive me when I was utterly shocked that, attending a Catholic Christmas mass that year, they played that song…and changed the words! The chorus of the first part replaced the chorus of the next two parts. I was shocked even more when I heard a Vanessa Williams version of the song that completely took out the second part.
This latter point – the removal of the second part – seems to be the most common change made to the carol. One can only wonder why this is…perhaps the most obvious is, at the risk of drawing a hasty conclusion, the inclusion of the description of the crucifixion. One rarely hears of nails and spears piercing someone through in a Christmas song. I was originally going to focus this post entirely on the carol and the second part, but my mind (as it often does) began to wander around the point, and I began to think harder on this issue. Namely, how we seem to focus solely on one aspect of our Blessed Lord’s life.
The fullness of Christ is the fullness of His life. He was the Incarnate Word born into our sinful flesh, Who lived a pure and blessed life, Who suffered as the sacrificial lamb, and Who rose again to free us from the death that separated us from God. Due to our natural habit of thinking in limited terms, it’s quite easy to fall into the trap of limiting our acknowledgment of Christ’s life. Doing so, however, limits our understanding of Christ. If we can forget about the crucifixion at Easter, it’s only easy enough for us to forget about it at Christmas.
It is a pity this is lost in the marketed atmosphere that has become the music world. Millions hear a carol in an edited form, and not because the carol or individual singers are at fault, but because our society as a whole is focused on forgetting that which is important and spiritually edifying. Yes, it may not be “nice” for us to remember that in thirty years that little baby we see in the manger looking so sweet and innocent will be a man beaten, spit upon, mocked, and crucified…but it will be salvific.
The only popular version of the song that I have heard in complete form is the version sung by the very talented Johnny Mathis. I’ll give Johnny the last word.