“What Child Is This?” was written by a severely depressed man. And we love it.

 

In December, in the year 2000, I was 21 years old and four months pregnant. I was staying with my Great Aunt Kathleen in her Chicago flat. The ancestral silence of the place was stifling. After months of desperation, contemplation, research, and prayer, I was planning to give my child up for adoption. I had no money, no home, no degree, no solid plans for the future, no spouse. I did have a fierce love for my unborn child, and a tiny three octave folk harp. I played for hours every day. I felt the first flutters of movement within as I played, tentative, then stronger.

 

One Sunday night we walked to church. It was slow, beautiful journey–cold but soft, with a light mist in the air and white lights hanging along the weathered stone of the houses on quiet streets. I was surprised at how huge the church was. There was a breathtaking sense of space within. The priest gave a simple homily in broken English. Advent, he said, means giving, forgiving, and waiting. I was dead tired and listening, trying to understand, and suddenly I realized that for once I did. I understood the long dark calm of waiting, of preparing a sacred space within, pushing aside external concerns and concentrating on being ready for something greater. Advent means coming, literally, the coming of the Lord as a child. This preparation to welcome the Christ child struck me as a healing mystery in that bittersweet moment. We wait in hope, in darkness, in silence. I knew that the next Advent season I would remember not only the advent of my own child, but the relinquishing as well.

 

In December, in the year 2017, I am 38 years old and four months pregnant. I am a professional musician, and my husband and I have just released a Christmas song. The album cover is black and white. My arms, wrapped around my harp, are bare. The photo was taken last summer, the day after I miscarried. I am wearing a sequined dress, though I can hardly stand. Music is holding us together. I chose that picture for the album cover because of the vulnerability on our faces, and because of the question in the song we are singing.

 

The author of “What Child Is This,” William Chatterton Dix, was a successful insurance manager until he fell ill with a terrible illness. He was bedridden, near death, and severely depressed. It was not until he began reading the Psalms in the midst of his despair that he began to write–and what he wrote became one of the most well known hymns in the world.

 

When we began working on the song, I was struck by the second verse. The song begins with the traditional angels and shepherds, followed by the comforting appearance of the ox and ass, but then–the nails and spear. This Child will be pierced through.

 

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.

 

The song is beautiful, but haunting. Without his pain, would William Chatterton Dix have written this song? Without giving a child up for adoption, would I have learned to play the harp? There are no easy answers. When we welcome the Child, we welcome the Cross. We open ourselves to suffering, to mystery, and to the hope of salvation.  

 

MG-6907-3
Kate Slattery Stapleton
and her husband, Casey, write and perform music as The Stapletons.  Follow then on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/stapletonsmusic/ and on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/album/0CPyeNHMuyXq7KX23JfuPz

See them live in Chicago as part of Sick Pilgrim and the Arts at St. Gregory’s Tales of Loss and Longing on February 23, 2018.

 

 

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