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Advent and the Death of Jesus

I read hymns. I absorb hymns. I internalize hymns. I want to understand how good hymns invite us into the depths of human experience.  Sometimes I’m surprised when familiar texts give way to new spiritual insights that are hard to put into words.

“What Child Is This” in A Hymnal and Service Book for Sunday Schools, Day Schools, Guilds, Brotherhoods, etc. (1893)

William Chatterton Dix’s 1865 hymn asks the rhetorical question, What Child is This? Who is this child? Why is he greeted by angels and shepherds? If this child is a king, why has he born “in such mean estate”?  The original text offers a shocking reply:

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.

I had never read these words before this year. They caught me by complete surprise. The fate of this innocent child is death—death on a cross. Suddenly the death of Jesus becomes real because Jesus was real. Jesus was a child. Jesus was a baby. And this baby was brutally murdered.  I find Dix’s words incredibly profound, but for reasons that are hard to describe.

While Advent brings hope, peace, joy and love, the birth of Jesus came during a time of intense darkness. The historical evidence suggests Jesus was born in a militarized zone with Roman guards on the streets of Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph were likely poor laborers and were oppressively taxed to support the Roman and Jewish elite. This political and social darkness is still a reality for most people in today’s world.

Christmas hymns that tell the story of the death of Jesus remind us that Jesus was born for adversity (Prov 17:17). From birth to death to life, Jesus identified with the oppressed and following him requires that we identify with the same people: refugees, foreigners and the poor.  “He has brought down the powerful from their throws and lifted up the lowly,” Mary says in Luke 1. Jesus does not come in sentimentality but to overturn powers and principalities.

If we read the words of our carols more closely they teach us about Jesus’s humble birth and death. One of my favorite lesser-known carols is “Bethlehem Down.” In brilliant parallelism, Peter Warlock discusses the gift of “myrrh for its sweetness, and gold for a crown” at Jesus’s birth and “myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown” at Jesus’s death. Jesus is indeed king, but does not exploit his power like earthly rulers. The fourth verse of “We Three Kings” offers the stunning reflection that Christ’s earthly life is one of “sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” The same child that experiences a humble birth will experience a humiliating death.

But of course in death there is life. Christianity proclaims that the resurrection of Jesus is good news for all creation. The season of Advent is about expecting the coming of God, the one who has crucified but will in glory forever. The one who “with righteousness shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (Isaiah 11:4). The final verse of “We Three Kings” proclaims:

Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
Alleluia, Alleluia,
sounds through the earth and skies

Read

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.

Reflection

  1. How is the beginning of Jesus’s life similar to the end of Jesus’s earthly life?
  2. How has the message of Jesus’s birth been “sentimentalized” in culture?
  3. How would you answer the question “What Child Is This?”

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