A Shocking Christmas Carol

A Shocking Christmas Carol

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That title might sound odd, since of all the words to describe Christmas carols, shocking isn't one that normally comes to mind. Beautiful, in many cases ("Silent Night"). Stirring, sometimes ("Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"). But shocking? It doesn't seem to fit.

There's at least one exception, though — one carol that does turn shocking and, in fact, violent.

That carol is "What Child Is This?" It starts out peaceful and soothing, like many others: The newborn Jesus sleeps in Mary's lap, watched over by shepherds and sung over by angels.

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!

Halfway through the second verse, though, the scene shifts abruptly:

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!

What a jarring shift. Flash forward from tiny infant, sheltered and protected, to grown man, assaulted and tormented. From birth to death. From Christmas to Good Friday.

That's not the end of the carol, but the rest of it — coming in the wake of that reminder of the terrible price Jesus will pay to save us — takes on a deeper resonance:

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 the song on high!
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy! joy! for Christ is born,
The babe, the son of Mary!

When I hear this during Christmas Eve services, I find myself hoping that the people who are only in church just once a year are paying attention. It's too easy to reduce Christmas to something merely sweet and sentimental. But you only find the true meaning of Christmas by looking at Good Friday and Easter. Doing that in the middle of a Christmas carol may be shocking, but sometimes a shock is just what we need.

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  • --The out-verses of "We, Three Kings" are also a pretty somber reflection on the crucifixion. There are more than a few Christmas Carols (and more modern tunes, like "Mary, Did you know?")  that point to the greater life of Christ. Andrew Peterson's Behold the Lamb of God has a few beautiful songs that also point to the greater message of Christmas.

  • --Don't forget that the melody was taken from a 16th-century song called "Greensleeves," which is clearly about a lost lover. Of course, a talented jazz band could make the song feel merrier. Just try not to think about the original words if you know them.

  • --I'm going to have to look up "What Child is This" in several different hymnals...I'm pretty sure that the second half of the second and third verse is usually replaced with the second half of the first verse in the versions I've heard.  I wonder if it is an attempt to make it less shocking.  (If I remember correctly, in the old hymn "At the Cross," the line "such a worm as I" was replaced by "sinners such as I" and later "someone such as I" in an attempt to be less offensive!)    

  • --To build on MrsAshelyTOF, I suspect it's fairly common to "adjust" songs according to one's audience. Just to share a real life, modern example, I actually performed Mary Did You Know a couple of times back in the 90's and didn't realize that the version I learned had omitted "the dumb will speak" and "the lame will leap" with something more contemporary and less demeaning. Everyone loved the song at my church in Southern California. But in turn I too rewrote the the last verses this year, rather shamelessly, trying to soften the phrase "will one day rule the nations" to fit my context. As a missionary, my context has changed and I was invited to a public performance in a Moslem governed country. I simply wanted to get the simple message across that Jesus is the son of God; however, I'd have no problem preaching Jesus will one day rule the nations if in an American context. Nonetheless, back on track with Matt's original post, I was indeed surprised at the lyrics written about a gentle little "baby in a manger!" LOL! And, I do love these old Christmas song classics, they are some great conversation starters!

  • --Flyleaf's "Christmas Song":

    A frightened virgin teenage girl

    Receives a message that defies the laws of this world

    All she can do is weep and nod

    She's to bring into this world the son of God

    God's angels sound their trumpets

    And blow their horns

    Tonight the long awaited savior is to be born

    The goodness bound by Satan it has been torn

    With this baby's precious brow ready for thorns

    A star appears fulfilling ancient prophecy

    There's an ounce of fear as wise men follow faithfully

    The virgin Mary brings forth the human savior

    And this future king sleeps soundly in the manger

    Soundly in the manger

    God's angels sound their trumpets

    And blow their horns

    Tonight the long awaited savior is to be born

    The goodness bound by Satan it has been torn

    With this baby's precious brow ready for thorns

    Tonight he is born so one day he can die

    To heal hearts that are torn and live the perfect life

    So he can hang upon a cross and we can take His life

    So we can live as sinners

    And he can pay the price

    Tonight he is born so one day he can die

    But he will rise again

    God's angels sound their trumpets

    And blow their horns

    Tonight the long awaited savior is to be born

    The goodness bound by Satan it has been torn

    With this baby's precious brow ready for thorns

  • --not sure why it put a space between every line.

  • --Among other discussions this morning, we talked about how it is sad when people focus only on Jesus' death and nothing else, when it is also important to reflect and marvel at the fact that Jesus was willing to come down to earth as a human baby, grow up and experience all of the things we experience. He temporarily gave up the comforts of heaven. He understands everything we go through. He taught and did so many things during his short earthly life as an example for us. He could have come to earth and died immediately, but he didn't. I grew up with the opposite extreme, so I am learning to be in awe of everything about Jesus.

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