Before Advent I was doing a weekly pastoral letter / reflection. That only required one intelligent thought per week. In a moment of zeal, I decided to do one every day during Advent (with assistance from Paul and Rachel). It is to help us all get into the right headspace for the season in spite of its unique (disrupted) nature this year. This new commitment requires me to have four moments of insight every week, which greatly exceeds my brain specs. It is cause for urgent prayer and desperate reading to overcome the deficit. While it is beneficial for me, it is why they sometimes arrive a little late.
Yesterday, we considered the carol “What Child is This?” by William Dix. There is something I have noticed with almost all carols. Finding the original lyrics is not always simple. Over the years, editors, compilers and musicians have (in their minds) ‘corrected’ and ‘improved’ on the original. Sometimes it is just to add extra verses (which can be quite good), but often it is to remove undesirable elements in the original. This has one of three forms: (i) removing misogynistic tendencies and phraseology of the unenlightened original composers (e.g. using ‘man’ instead of ‘humankind’), (ii) to de-masculinize references to God (i.e. not: Father, Son & Spirit, but Creator, Redeemer, Comforter – and definitely no male pronouns), or (iii) to remove any no longer socially acceptable references to sin, judgment and punishment. I will make no comment here on ‘corrections’ (i) and (ii). (Maybe later …?)
‘Correction’ (iii) has been applied to Dix’s carol. In verse two, the original third and fourth lines are: “Good Christians, fear, for sinners here | the silent word is pleading.” Modern renderings have changed this to, “The end of fear for all who hear | the silent word is speaking.” (Original lyrics here, new ones here). So, the original calls us to pause, and consider in sober judgment (“Christians, fear!”), the fact that we are “sinners,” and the “Word” is pleading for us to receive salvation by acknowledging the fact and repenting. The new ‘improved’ version tells us not to worry about anything – there is nothing to “fear” – because the “Word” is speaking (presumably happy thoughts) about how much we are loved.
In addition, the last four lines of verses 2 and 3 are changed to repeat those of the first verse, and the last part of verse 3 is used as a refrain. The words that are left out completely? … the last four lines of verse two! “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.” Salvador Dali, Rachel Weeping for Her Children
What has this done to contemporary understanding of who we are and what God did?
The new version implies that we are all basically good people and that through the incarnation God came to tell us how much he loves us, particularly by tidying up the consequences of our little mistakes.
The original version places our unworthiness for rescue next to God’s willingness to save. We are not good. We deserve condemnation because our inherent selfish nature wars against God and the good of his creation. But God came to save us anyway! In the saving (at great personal cost) he took on our sin, so that we could take on his righteousness. All we have to do is receive it by faith.
One version is true, the other is false. Advent is a perfect time to consider which version best reflects the way we think and to make sure we hold to what is true.
In His grace