On behalf of the Chaplains in the URG Chaplaincy, I wish to the members of the Rio Family a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. To the Jewish members of the Rio Family, I offer greetings for a Happy Chanuakh!
This Christmas carol I will examine this year is a combination of 19th Century text and a 15th Century melody well known in Elizabethian England. The result is “What Child is This?”- my favorite Christmas hymn.
The origins of this hymn begin with William C. Dix. He was born June 17, 1843 in Bristol, England, also the birth city of the poet Thomas Chatterton. Dix’s father wrote a biography of Chatterton and gave his son Chatterton’s last name for his middle name. Dix spent most of his professional life working for a maritime insurance company in Glasgow. In the early 1860’s, he was struck by an unspecified, nearly fatal illness that necessitated several months of being confined to bed. During this health crisis, he also fought depression. Yet, during this storm of life, he clung to his deep Christian faith and expressed that faith in defiance of his illness and depression by writing religious poems and hymns. In total, his life’s written work consisted of more than 40 hymns, including “What Child is This?” and several volumes of religious poetry, including his poem, The Manger Throne”. In his lifetime, he was better known for another Christmas hymn “As with Gladness Men of Old”. Dix recovered and lived long enough to see his daughter Gertrude publish her first novel, but he did not live to see the advent of the 20th Century, dying on September 9, 1898. He was buried at his parish church, St. Andrew’s Church, in Cheddar, Somerset, England.
“What Child is This?” was first published in the 1871 hymnal Christmas Carols New and Old, a collaborative work of the Reverend Henry Ramsden Bramley (1833-1917) and the composer, Sir. John Stainer (1840-1901). It is uncertain how Dix’s poem gained the attention of these two men to add to their work, though it is believed that Stainer is the one who married Dix’s words to the melody of “Greensleeves”. The Scriptural basis for this song is Isaiah 9:6-7. The first two stanzas ask a question, which is then answered. The final stanza makes a general appeal for people to accept Jesus Christ as their own.
The earliest sound recording of this hymn I have found was in 1958 by Johnny Mathis. In recent years, artists from various genres have recorded this hymn including Andrea Bocelli, The Annie Moses Band, Ernie Haas and Signature Sound, Josh Groban, Pentatonix, Lindsey Stirling, Carrie Underwood and Vanessa Williams.
The song asks a question, but this year our society has an additional question: How are people to celebrate Christmas during an ongoing pandemic? Some churches have suspended public services. Some governors have decreed limits on how many may gather for celebrations, even in private homes. The first Christmas was a small gathering of Mary, Joseph and the newborn Jesus and then shepherds who came by the invitation of angels and the light of the Bethlehem Star. Government leaders may demand social distancing, yet I think Christmas is proof that God does not want social distancing from humans. One of the names for Jesus Christ is Emmanuel, God with us. Not God socially distant or God adjacent. He was born, like all other humans. He knew what it was to be human so people could relate to God. He was not born into an elite part of society. His Earthly parents were a working man and his wife. What a unique feature of Christianity–God became human so people could have a way to someday live eternally with God. Mary wrapped that gift for the world and placed Him in a manger. In a pandemic year 2020, if the question is asked “What Child is This?” I supply this answer: This is Christ the King, who lived long before COVID-19 and whose Kingdom will still stand long after COVID-19 is as far distant from our time as the Black Death is from our society today.
This Christmas season, let us not forget our gratitude to those wearing the uniform of our nation’s armed forces, away from their families serving at a distant post in our country or on a foreign shore. Let us also remember those in law enforcement and those emergency service workers who are on duty on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, absent from their families on behalf of public order and safety. The important work of these groups continues despite the existence of COVID-19.
During Christmas 2020, let us remember all those who are enduring COVID-19 and the far too many families who will be spending their first Christmas without a loved one because of this pandemic. Even before the pandemic began, there were those who experienced homelessness, hunger, grief, addiction, abuse, trafficking, poverty, financial struggle, loneliness, persecution for their faith, depression, infirmity, imprisonment, isolation and institutionalization. These miseries will still exist as they always have. Governments may enforce social distance, but that does not mean that one has to be emotionally distant from people in these groups (or any people) nor keep them distant in thought. God is not distant from any of us. His followers can truly be His Hands and Feet in helping those in need. In a fallen world, people who care about the suffering and act upon that compassion may be as much a Heavenly messenger as those who announced the birth of the Christ Child to shepherds so long ago. The song asks and answers the question what Child is this. My question to you: Are you ready to act upon His message for the good of others, not only during the Christmas season, but throughout the year?
William E. Plants
URG Chaplaincy Coordinator