Wednesday, January 5, 2011

One child, three kings

On the Dec. 24 episode of Issues Etc., the first hour examined the Christmas hymn “What Child is This?” The show featured two LCMS pastors, host Todd Wilken and regular guest Will Weedon.

The show examined the three 19th century verses by William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898), set to the Elizabethan tune “Greensleeves” (H40: #36; H82: #115). Pastor Weedon noted it is one of three familiar Dix hymns — the same three that are in Hymnal 1940: “What Child” (#36), “As with gladness men of old” (#52 for Epiphany) and “Alleliuia, sing to Jesus” (#347, sung to Hyfrydol).

Rev. Weedon is a little more like me — an enthusiastic tyro rather than a scholar — than some of the show’s other experts like seminary professor Dr. Arthur Just. Still, like nearly all of the Issues Etc. episodes on familiar hymns, I enjoyed it immensely.

As it turns out, Dr. Just discussed this same hymn three years ago on Issues Etc. And two years ago, Pastor Wilken discussed the hymn in a discussion of listeners’ favorite hymns.

The discussion of the first verse was quite consonant with the earlier interview with Dr. Just: answering the question, who is Jesus of Nazareth and this baby in the manger? As Pastor Weedon notes, the first verse ties back to Luke 2 — by my reading, specifically Luke 2:15-16:
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
(Ironically, the other hour of the Dec. 24 show was Dr. Just talking about the Luke 2 account of the Nativity.)

The first verse also seems to evoke other hymns from this text, including “While shepherds watched their flocks by night” and of course “Hark, the herald angels sing.”

On the second verse, Pastor Weedon notes that the ox and ass are not in the New Testament, but are inferred (by Dix and others romanticizing the Nativity) from their presence in Isaiah 1:3:
The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib,
but Israel does not know, my people do not understand."
Beyond this, two LCMS pastors emphasize Jesus coming to die on the cross. I suspect my regular reader jleebcd would argue this is an excessively Lutheran (or LCMS) fixation of making everything in the Old and New Testaments about the cross. But this reference seems more than just a Lutheran one — completely consistent with the 3rd verse of Charles Wesley (i.e. Methodist) hymn “Hark!”
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
In the third verse, Pastor Weedon notes that the text leaps forward to Epiphany, with its reference to the three wise men (or kings) of Matthew 2. (Listening to LCMS pastors is always a good way to improve my German cultural knowledge — here that Epiphany is “Dreik√∂nigsfest” — literally, "festival of the three kings.”)

Again, Pastor Weedon ties the New Testament narrative back to an Isaiah prophecy, this one from Isaiah 60:1-3 (earlier used as the text of that wonderful Messiah aria):
Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee.

For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee.

And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.
This makes my third posting on Dix’s hymn — each time about a separate mention of the hymn on Issues Etc. Each time I’ve learned something new about the hymn and how it can be used to communicate Christian doctrine. This is one reason that no matter how busy my December or early January, I always make sure to listen to back shows of Issues Etc. that air during this season.

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