The poetic device of asking a question is not uncommon. When Elizabeth Barrett Browning posed the rather famous question, “How do I love thee?” she was not intending to leave the question open. Fast on the heels of the question came the answer: “Let me count the ways.”
The poetry of hymns includes any number of examples which use this same device. Frederic Baue’s hymn “What Is This Bread?” (Christian Worship Supplement #742) is reminiscent of catechetical question and answer methodology. The African-American spiritual “Were You There?” (Christian Worship #119) acknowledges that we weren’t there at the crucifixion but places us there in spirit simply by asking the question. Isaac Watts asks, “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” (The Lutheran Hymnal #445) so that the singer, through all the trials of being a Christian, will know that the answer is, “Yes,” and will pray, “Increase my courage, Lord!” Charles Wesley’s hymn, “And Can It Be,” includes the question, “How can it be that you, my Lord, should die for me?” and provides the answer: “Amazing love!”
So, during the Christmas season, when we sing the question of hymn writer William Dix, “What Child Is This?” (Christian Worship #67), we understand that the stanza is going to unfold the marvelous answer.
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!
With the current world population, a baby is born every four seconds. In the lesser populated world in which Mary and Joseph lived, the birth frequency rate was undoubtedly a little lower. But still, plenty of babies were being born. Of all of those births the question could be asked, “What child is this?” Of only one of those births—the firstborn son of a virgin, a birth greeted with angel anthems, a birth announced to shepherds—of only one of those births could the answer be given, “This child is Christ the King!”
What is the King of kings doing lying in a manger?
Why lies he in such mean estate where oxen now are feeding?
Good Christians, fear; for sinners here the silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through; the cross he'll bear for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the babe, the Son of Mary!
The answer of the hymn is the answer of the scriptures. “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). “Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him” (John 19:17-18). “One of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear” (John 19:34). This particular child wouldn’t be any more precious than any other child born in Bethlehem or anywhere else were he not the God-man whose holy sacrifice removed from the sight of God the sin of the world.
With the child’s identification and mission clearly delineated, the questions fade and the invitation is extended.
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!
The invitation is to believe (“Let loving hearts enthrone him.”), to worship (“Raise, raise the song on high.”), and to rejoice (“Joy, joy for Christ is born.”).
The haunting melody of GREENSLEEVES reaches a highpoint twice in each stanza. In two of three stanzas the melody soars where the answer to the question is being given. “This is Christ the King!” “Nails, spear shall pierce him through.” And in the third stanza, that melodic highpoint fittingly cries out, “Raise the song on high. Joy, for Christ is born.” It is well worth it to take in an extra measure of breath to belt out those phrases that fall on the high notes. Why?
You are reading these words in December, the month during which we celebrate the birth of the King. In this article’s treatment of this hymn, you may not have come across anything that is startlingly new to you. That of itself reminds you of the priceless gifts you’ve been given. The Lord has given you the answers to these questions and the faith that holds them fast. This child is Christ my king. Nails and spear pierced through him in my place. I have a song to raise on high. I have reason to rejoice, for Christ is born for me.
Gloria in excelsis Deo!