A Shocking Christmas Carol

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.