Many of the best writers have bouts of alcoholism or drug addiction. Some of the best musicians of our time died of drug overdose or suicide. Many of the artists that we revere as great have lives filled with torment or depression.
What is it about pain or sorrow or depression that brings out such beautiful works of art?
We even see this in the story of Jesus. Take a scandalous marriage, a child seemingly out of wedlock— yet a holy conception, and a wicked king and you have the beginning of the New Testament. From the pain of a new couple—Mary and Joseph—and a birth in a lowly stable (ladies, I’m sure childbirth is already hard enough, right?), comes this beautiful child who saves the world, literally.
I often wonder if in our pain, we are somehow more connected with who we are intended to be. I wonder if our “God-imageness" is more pure when unencumbered by the many masks that we wear. We’re stripped down to our essence by the humility of pain and thus more aware of the beauty around us, whether we feel joy from it or not. C.S. Lewis puts it this way in his book The Problem of Pain "[Pain] removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul."
What Child Is This?
In 1865, William Dix wrote the Christmas hymn What Child is This? during a deep depression. In his late twenties, Dix came close to death with a near-fatal illness that put him on bed-rest for a number of months. During this time, he struggled with deep depression. Yet, despite the sorrow of that time, he writes this beautiful carol.
Each stanza of the carol mixes a visual image of humanness (a child asleep on a mother’s lap or a stable scene with ox and ass) and pairs it with the grandeur of Christmas—that the Savior has come! When I have time to stop and think about it, I am amazed that God came as a baby. The King of Kings is “the babe, the son of Mary!"
So, next time you hear or sing this carol, consider the grandeur of the story contained in these verses. A little baby born into this world around painful circumstances came to rescue us from our pain.
A final note
One thing that I found interesting in reading about this song is that most of the recordings of this song don’t sing the full stanzas. They replace the second half of the second and third stanza with “This, this is Christ the King…." Here’s the second stanza as an example:
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 he born for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Saviour come,
The babe, the son of Mary!