"What Child Is This" by W. Chatterton Dix
Have you ever studied the words of Isaiah 9:6-7 (they begin, "For to us a child is born") and realized just how strange they are? At first glance, the grand titles and expectations seem absurd to place on a child. It’s a strange picture - a small child, hunched over like Atlas, a parliament building set on his shoulders, wearing a crown, perched on a throne, with a very troubled look on his face, as if to say, “What in the world am I doing here?” And yet, this is exactly what these verses tell us to be true. Of course, there was no actual building, no real throne, and no crown but one of thorns. But the thought is still astounding – this child, this baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, would be the fulfillment of these promises. He would be, and is, the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. It is this astonishing prophecy that we keep in mind when we ask the question, “What child is this?”
This text, by William C. Dix, is his own modification of a poem he had written entitled “The Manger Throne.” There are two differences in the text between hymnals. Some hymnals, rather than divide into three verses and a chorus, make the tune of the chorus an extension of each verse, using the traditional words for the chorus as an extension of verse one, and adding new words to verses two and three. Other hymnals that keep the traditional structure alter the third line of the chorus to repeat, “This, this is Christ the King,” rather than “Haste, haste to bring Him laud.”
Perhaps the most famous aspect of this hymn is its tune. GREENSLEEVES is an iconic medieval tune, named for the character about which the old folk song was written, Lady Green Sleeves. It is the only tune now used for Dix’s text. One important difference in the tune among various versions is found in the second measure. The rising notes on the word “this” can either be sung as a half step from B to C, or a whole step, from C to C#.
This gentle hymn can be sung a cappella, or with very light accompaniment. The harmonies are beautiful, so be sure to draw those out. You could start with a children’s choir on the first verse, and add the congregation on the last two. Or start a cappella, and add light guitar or piano. Don’t be afraid to sing this hymn at a fairly quick tempo.
This is a well-known Christmas carol, and is often sung during a carol sing or Christmas Eve service. It is often sung as a solo, and could be sung during the offering, emphasizing the words, “so bring Him incense, gold and myrrh.” Larry Shackley has a beautiful arrangement of this hymn combining it with “Coventry Carol” in his collection of carols for the piano, Christmas Reflections.