Sunday, December 21, 2008

What child? Not just a child!

Earlier this week, I was debating with Vicar Josh over a throwaway line in his blog
Jesus is NOT the reason for the season
As I interpret the good vicar, he believes that the phrase “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” is too much about the birthday of Baby Jesus, not enough about the death and resurrection of the grown Jesus. I choose to see the glass as half full — that celebrating Jesus’ birth could, in fact, be part of an acknowledgment of the reason for His coming.

As it turns out, this topic came up last week on the new Issues Etc. webcast radio show. On Wednesday (Dec. 17), Pastor Todd Wilken hosted a 12-minute segment inviting listener participation, entitled “What is your favorite Christmas hymn, and why?”

One reader emailed that his favorite is “What child is this?” (which made a recent list of most often-found Christmas hymns). Pastor Wilken read from the email by “Dennis” of St. Johns, Michigan:
Only this Christmas hymn puts the cross in Christmas — which is the true meaning of Christmas. The sole purpose of the Incarnation was the cross and our salvation. This is why he came and this is what he's done for us.
Set to the 16th century English ballad, Greensleeves, the 19th century words are by William Chatterton Dix. The strongest message of the cross comes from the last half of the second verse
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.
This is the version reported in the 1982 LCMS hymnal, Lutheran Worship. (#61). I did not see it in the earlier 1941 LCMS hymnal, The Lutheran Hymnal, nor in the PECUSA Hymnal 1916. It was not indexed in the 1865, 1906 or 1933 Church of England hymnals; in the 1986 New English Hymnal (#40), the nails, spear and piercing are there, but not “the Word made flesh,” a direct quotation from John 1:14.

Alas, Episcopalians (and we continuing Anglicans) get only part of the message from Hymnal 1940 (#36) and Hymnal 1982 (#115). While the first part of the verse (with the reference to sinners) remains, the rendition uses a common refrain for all three verses. This is a version I grew up with, and the use of the refrain makes it more singable; however, it dramatically changes the theology by dropping the direct and vivid reference to the cross and Crucifixion.

Even with the simplified refrain, in the final verse from Hymnal 1940 we sing of Christ’s purpose for coming:
So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh,
come, peasant, king, to own him;
the King of kings salvation brings,
let loving hearts enthrone him.

This, this is Christ the King,
whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
haste, haste to bring him laud,
the babe, the son of Mary.
So while the hymn starts with an emphasis on Baby Jesus, it ends with a discussion of his kingship and his role in our salvation. This is at least one hymn that begins from the “Jesus is the reason” theme, but links that directly to the Good Friday and Easter message.

Pastor Wilken said that he didn’t really appreciate the hymn until last year, when on the old Issues Etc. (then distributed by LCMS Inc.) he conducted an interview about it with Dr. Arthur Just, professor at the LCMS seminary in Ft. Wayne. As Dr. Just says in the interview, “Christmas is about the fact that Jesus is born to die.” He also notes that Dix wrote this as an Epiphany hymn (hence the incense, gold and myrrh).

As it turns out, I thought the Dec. 30, 2007 episode with Dr. Just was so memorable that I blogged on it at the time. The interview with Dr. Just also emphasized Christmas as a season — the season that runs from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6, not from Nov. 1 (or Oct. 1) through Dec. 24.

Jesus is the reason for the season. Q.E.D.


Vicar Josh Osbun said...

Semantics aside, "What Child is This" first appeared in LCMS hymnals in the 1969 Worship Supplement, which was intended to be a supplementary edition for The Lutheran Hymnal. The text in Lutheran Worship is the unchanged from the supplement. I would correct your post, however, in that it says, "Good CHRISTIAN, fear," not, "Good CHRISTIANS, fear."

9.West said...

Dear Vicar,

Thanks for visiting.

Of course you're right about "Christian"; I've fixed the post.

jleecbd said...

I have to say, as always, that I find Pastor Wilkens very narrow view of salvation inconsistent with the ancient Church. I blogged a bit about it here

jleecbd said...

I've been a bit behind on reading blogs lately. Fr. Freeman, one of my fave bloggers posted an extensive entry on St. Basil's day that said, in part, the following:

For some, the Incarnation of Christ, His coming among us in the flesh, was for the sole purpose of offering Himself as a sacrifice, a payment, for the sins of the world. Resurrection is job completed, awaiting only the Ascension so that He can go back home and celebrate a successful work here on earth. All that remains is for His followers to market “faith” in Him as a means of enlisting others in eternal life in heaven.

In such approaches there is nothing integral about the Incarnation - nothing revealed in the fact of God made man. It is little wonder that for many Christians the Virgin Mary holds no place of particular honor. By the same token, other saints are themselves only isolated objects of decision - they in no way have a share in the life and work of Christ. In such a world of isolation, Orthodox Christianity is strange indeed.