“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
Why lies He in such mean estate,
So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
Helpless and hungry, lowly, afraid
Who is the stranger here in our midst,
Bring all the thirst, all who seek peace;
©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, ©