For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
– Isaiah 9:6
Unlike most British hymn writers in the 18th and early 19th centuries, William Chatterton Dix was not a minister. His father was a surgeon, and he was a businessman, the manager of the Maritime Insurance Company in Glasgow, Scotland.
But in 1865, when he was 29 years old, Dix became unexpectedly, critically ill. He nearly died. Though he survived, he was left bedridden for several months and became severely depressed. Ultimately, however, he came through his near-death experience to be a completely changed man for the good. He experienced a spiritual awakening that inspired him to begin writing hymns.
Dozens of his compositions appeared in song books in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most of them have now fallen into disuse. His most enduring work was written on reading and reflecting on the story of the announcement of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in Luke 2:8-20. It was authored in the year of his illness, though it was not published until 1871 in a collection entitled Christmas Carols Old and New. There it was paired with the Elizabethan tune “Greensleeves,” which had come to be associated with the Christmas season centuries before. Dix had originally title his work The Manger Throne, but it became better known by its opening line: “What child is this?”
Of course, that is a rhetorical question; we all know the answer is Jesus. But the sense is very much like the query of the disciples when Jesus rebuked the wind and the sea, calming a storm with only a word: Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him? (Mark 4:41). They knew that only God had that power, and so the answer is implicit in the question. But it is almost too wonderfully incomprehensible to be believed, so that they cannot actually voice it.
The same thing is true of the song: who is this child, that even the angels greet him with songs of praise? The sense of awe is magnified in the second verse (which, like most of these, I imagine many of us have never paid very much attention to):
Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Could it really be true that God himself has come in the flesh? But why, then, are those laudatory angelic choirs the exception not the rule? Why do they sing to shepherds rather than to kings and potentates? Why is he lying in a stable surrounded by farm animals instead of a palace attended by dignitaries?
In Jesus, the eternal Word really has come to dwell among us, revealing the glory of God, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). As the chorus exclaims, “This, this is Christ, the King/Whom shepherds guard and angels sing.” But the flipside of that is, in the incarnation, we not only see God most fully—he sees us more fully too in a way. Jesus emptied himself, pouring himself out into human form (Phil 2:6-7). He became like us with everything that includes. Jesus knows what it means to experience poverty and want. To be hungry, thirst, tired. He knows what it means to stand at the grave of a loved one and weep. He knows what it means to be tempted. He can sympathize with our weaknesses, because he suffered them himself (Heb 4:14-16).
And that humility in taking on flesh, lowering himself even to be laid in a manger, points to the ultimate humiliation of his death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:8). The chorus that follows the second verse of the song is omitted in some versions—it seems so dark for a Christmas carol!— but it’s really the whole point:
Nails, spears shall pierce him through,
the cross he bore for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
the Babe, the Son of Mary.
What child is this? The God-man who entered the world, walked in it as a human being with all that entails, and died the most excruciating death imaginable for us. That is the good news for us here, where he can identify with our present distress, and hereafter, when we will identify with him as he is now. What can we do but worship him?
So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh,
Come, peasant, king to own Him.
The King of kings salvation brings;
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.