Sing the Songs of Christmas: What Child Is This?

Editor’s Note: The Christmas season is now in full swing, and to celebrate the release of Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth’s Advent devotional The First Songs of Christmas, here on blog we thought we’d share a few of our favorite Christmas songs. Also, check out the new Christmas playlist created by our team, available on Spotify or YouTube. Several of our blogger favorites are included! —Laura Elliott

When I was little, I took piano lessons for a few years. Of course, like most kids taking piano lessons, I dreamt of being a fabulous pianist; I just didn’t want to practice. I wanted to sit down at the piano and play every song perfectly the first time. It frustrated me that I wasn’t a piano prodigy. But there were two songs I didn’t mind practicing. One was called “Arkansas Traveler,” and it was the tune to the nursery rhyme that begins, “I’m bringing home my baby bumble bee . . . ” I played it so much I think my brothers almost moved out. 

The other song was “Greensleeves.” I loved playing “Greensleeves.” To this day, the tune’s Celtic vibe still appeals to me. However, I loved it even more after my mom explained that it was also the tune of a Christmas carol called “What Child Is This?” Ohhhh, no wonder it sounds so familiar, I remember thinking. 

After that, “Greensleeves” became more than just my second favorite song to play, but rather my favorite Christmas carol of all time. Anytime I played, I enthusiastically sang along, “What child is this, nana na na na nana na na na nana naaaaaaa naaaaaaaa. THIS THIS na na na na” because I had no idea what the “What Child is This” lyrics actually were. Still, it was my favorite Christmas carol. 

This, This Is Christ the King 

“Greensleeves” is an English folk song penned around 1580. The original lyrics were a love ballad about a young lady and her boyfriend. Then in 1865, William Chatterton Dix, manager of an insurance company in Scotland, wrote the lyrics to “What Child Is This?” after being bedridden due to severe illness. He set its tune to Greensleeves.

The first stanza reads,

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.

The song begins with a rhetorical question, setting the scene for the most remarkable yet inconspicuous introduction to the best thing that’s ever happened to humanity: the sending of the Son of God. It’s a good question. What child is this, that a multitude of angels would announce his coming to unsuspecting shepherds? He is none other than Christ the King, so hurry, and don’t delay to bring praise (or laud) to this beautiful babe of Mary. 

Two things stand out to me about the opening of this song: the swiftness with which it proclaims Christ as King, and the urgency with which it begs us to praise Him. “Haste, haste,” it says, to bring Him praise. The idea is to move quickly or work feverishly. Whatever it is you’re doing, don’t waste another minute without praising the King of kings. Be like the shepherds who, overjoyed at the announcement of a Savior, dropped everything and ran to Him. What about their flocks, their livelihood, and their responsibilities? It didn’t matter. There was a new little Lamb in the stable, and He was far more important. 

Hail, Hail the Word Made Flesh 

I’m not sure I’ve ever noticed it before, but the second stanza also begins with a question. 

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and donkeys are feeding?
Good Christians, 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.

If this child is indeed Christ the King—the Savior sent to crush the serpent and reconcile humanity—why is He in a dirty stable? Why is He not in the finest nursery among the wealthiest nobles with every servant waiting to do His bidding? Here’s one answer: Christ’s mission from start to finish required humility. But perhaps it’s better to sit in the height and width and breadth of that question a bit longer. Why was the Christ child on a bed of hay in a feeding trough surrounded by stinky animals? 

Because God’s love is beyond our comprehension. 

The Word of God who spoke the world into existence, whose voice thunders like a thousand rainstorms, chose to silence Himself as a baby on our behalf. To the human mind it makes no sense. Yet, with flesh cloaking Christ’s supremacy, there He lay, humbly submitted to the Father’s will. A will that escalated from a meager beginning to a mortifying ending. A will that took that little Lamb from the stable to the cross. 

As thorns crushed Christ’s skull and nails thrashed his flesh, the Lamb of God remained silent. “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth” (Isa. 53:7), except for a few words mercifully spoken in love and not wrath. 

“Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). 

There is nothing more unjust than the righteous Son of God dying for the unrighteous works of man, and yet God allowed it—planned it—for our salvation. And Jesus willingly embraced the idea of suffering on our behalf. 

So hail Him as a conqueror, and hail Him as the King. Greet Him, glorify Him, and acclaim Him “as the one and only Son from the Father full of grace and truth” (John 1:14)—the Babe, the Son of Mary. 

Joy, Joy for Christ Is Born 

But don’t stop there. Christ is worthy of more, proclaims the third stanza. 

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 a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The babe, the Son of Mary

People of royalty don’t usually mingle with common folk—it’s degrading. But this King of kings invites everyone from the homeless man in the ghetto, to the elite being served in mansions, to the children playing down the street to come and fellowship with Him. The gospel doesn’t discriminate. Jesus is the good news every man, woman, and child is searching for—if only loving hearts would enthrone Him. 

If only we would follow the bright morning star (Rev. 22:16) just as the Magi did. If only we would not resist the journey. If only we would bring our earthly treasures in exchange for heavenly ones. If only we would come, willingly, with praise and thankfulness in our hearts and eyes wide with wonder at all that God has done for us. 

“Joy, joy for Christ is born,” isn’t just a catchy line in a fun Christmas carol. It’s a call to action in response to reality. Jesus Christ—God himself—willingly left the glories of heaven for the confines of humanity, knowing full well how it would end. Christ had every right to invade the earth in style with legions of angels ready to do His bidding. Instead, He chose to occupy the smallest corner in the most meager circumstances as a vulnerable infant. 

What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?

He is the risen King—the conqueror of death. He is the Savior born to a seething, sinful world. He is hope and salvation. He is the Word made flesh and the only true God. He is the true meaning of Christmas. Joy, joy that Christ is born to bear the reproach of every scorn. 

No matter what this Christmas holds for you, I pray that you will haste, haste to bring Christ praise. This beautiful son of Mary. 

Are you a fan of Christmas music? Check out Nancy’s Christmas album, Come Adore, in the Revive Our Hearts store or listen for free wherever you stream music.

About the Author

Stacey Salsbery

Stacey Salsbery

Stacey Salsbery is a farmer’s wife and mother of four—or as she likes to say, “President of Home Operations.” Stacey loves teaching women the Bible and along with her family makes her home in the cornfields of Indiana. For more, … read more …

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