History of Hymns: ‘like a child’ conveys baby Jesus’ vulnerability

“like a child”
Dan Damon
The Faith We Sing
, No. 2092

like a child
    love would send
        to reveal
            and to mend
                like a child
                    and a friend
                        Jesus comes

like a child
    we may find
        claiming heart
            soul and mind,
                like a child
                    strong and kind
                        Jesus comes *

Traditionally many Christmas hymns have explored the birth of Jesus as the coming of a monarch.

For example, Charles Wesley wrote, “Hark! the herald angels sing, / ‘Glory to the new-born King!’” The refrain of another traditional English carol echoes this: “Noel, born is the King of Israel.” Isaac Watts wrote, “Let earth receive her King.”

Others have explored the images of Jesus, born in humble surroundings. The lovely Polish carol begins, “Infant holy, / infant lowly, / for his bed a cattle stall.” Cecil Frances Alexander began her famous carol, “Once in royal David’s city / stood a lowly cattle shed.”

Dan Damon

Poets are always searching for metaphors to express the nature of the Incarnation. The Rev. Daniel Charles Damon (b. 1955) is among the more recent hymn writers that explore the coming of infant Jesus in fresh ways. Mr. Damon, pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Point Richmond, Calif., also plays jazz piano and teaches a church music course at Pacific School of Religion. His work has appeared in several recent hymnals, and five collections of his hymns have been published.

Reminiscent of e.e. cummings’ poetic style, Mr. Damon wrote his original poem with no capital letters or punctuation. Presented as a poem rather than interlined with the music, the indented lines of the text provide a visual symbol of the Christ child descending to earth. Mr. Damon, also an excellent hymn tune writer, composed a child-like melody to accompany this new carol.

Rather than comparing the Christ-child to royalty or detailing the humble surroundings of the manger scene, Mr. Damon looks at children in the world and sees Christ-like qualities in them. Look at the children around you, Mr. Damon tells us in this carol, and you will see glimpses of the infant Jesus. He uses the poetic device of a simile to capture a picture of Jesus. The phrase “like a child” returns 12 times in three stanzas.

Stanza two reminds us that Jesus was “like a child on the street” with “ragged clothes, dirty feet.” This is a picture of a most vulnerable and humble God who took a human form (Philippians 2:5-11). The third stanza reminds us that “a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6, NIV): “like a child born to pray and to show us the way. . . Jesus comes.”

The hymn challenges our consumer-driven notions of the Christmas season. Somewhere between the 19th and 21st centuries we have domesticated the setting of Christ’s birth to the point that it appears more like a bed & breakfast that we see on some greeting cards. Sweet smelling hay replaces the dank aroma of a stable. Cooing doves and mooing cows, humming in harmony, supplant restless animals in their stalls. An idyllic manger bed takes the place of a feeding trough. The first visitors were the humblest of the poor, closer in social station to street people than to many of us.

By domesticating the birth of Christ, we may make ourselves more comfortable, but risk losing the sense of mystery that comes from pondering the presence of the Creator of the Universe dwelling among the poorest of the poor.

This is not a call to forsake the rich legacy of Christmas carols that celebrate the coming of the King of kings. It is a reality check to remember that when we see a “child on the street” with “ragged clothes, dirty feet,” we may see the face of Christ. As the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:40 reminds us, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (NIV)

* ©1993 Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188.  All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.


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