The Common Good

What Are You Singing: What Child Is This / Child of the Poor

Photo: Stained glass image of baby Jesus, © Jurand / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Stained glass image of baby Jesus, © Jurand / Shutterstock.com

“What Child is This,” written by William C. Dix in 1865 is one of the few Christmas carols I know of that does not have its own musical arrangement. It uses the tune, “Greensleeves” (a traditional English folk song, thought to have been written in the late 16th or early 17th century), which when paired with Dix’s lyrics creates a haunting and beautiful image of the birth of our Lord. 

There’s another song that’s less well-known titled “Child of the Poor,” written by Scott Soper (published in 1994). The counter melody blends stunningly with the melody of “What Child is This.” Reading the lyrics, side by side, gives me chills. In part, because it reminds me that hope is found in low places — God could’ve chosen to be raised in comfort (as Moses was). The cross was only the finale of Jesus’ discomfort. “Child of the Poor” honors the death and discomfort we often don’t want to think about while we’re sitting around the fire drinking cocoa. 

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.

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass 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.

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.

 

Refrains

Helpless and hungry, lowly, afraid
Wrapped in the chill of midwinter;
Comes now among us, born into poverty’s embrace, 
new life for the world
Who is this who lives with the lowly, 
Sharing their sorrows, knowing their hunger?
This is Christ, revealed to the world 
In the eyes of a child, a child of the poor

Who is the stranger here in our midst, 
Looking for shelter among us?
Who is the outcast? Who do we see amid the poor, 
the children of God?
Who is this who lives with the lowly, 
Sharing their sorrows, knowing their hunger?
This is Christ, revealed to the world 
In the eyes of a child, a child of the poor

Bring all the thirst, all who seek peace;
Bring those with nothing to offer.
Strengthen the feeble,
Say to the frightened heart: “Fear not: here is your God!” Who is this who lives with the lowly, 
Sharing their sorrows, knowing their hunger?
This is Christ, revealed to the world 
In the eyes of a child, a child of the poor

©1994, OCP. All rights reserved

Listen to Notre Dame’s Folk Group singing Child of the Poor, What Child is This? on Youtube 

Reading the lyrics again, Matthew 25 (“the least of these”) comes to mind. Look at the second verse in “Child of the Poor:”

“Who is the stranger here in our midst, looking for shelter among us? Who is the outcast? Who do we see amid the poor, the children of God?” 

When Jesus says “Whenever you did for the least of these” many years after his birth in a manger, maybe we’re supposed to take his words somewhat literally: Jesus lived without shelter and clothes. He was hungry and thirsty, suffering also through illness and pain. The joy, the major chords, of Christ’s birth must be coupled with the sorrow and hunger and sin of the world. And as Christians — Christ followers — we must remember that Jesus is also savior to the poor.

James Colten is Assistant to the CEO at Sojourners. Follow James on Twitter @jamescolten. "What Child is This Child of the Poor" performed by Bald & Beautiful (Charlie Armstrong Walter, Stanton Galdys, and Caleb "Skates" Murray on saxophone)

Photo: Stained glass image of baby Jesus, © Jurand | View Portfolio / Shutterstock.com

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