'Who Is He In Yonder Stall?'
By Peter James (Dec 9, 2014)
Editor's note: There is no doubt that the theme of mercy can be found in many favorite Christmas carols. Here's the second of a four-part Advent series reflecting on the theme of mercy in some of our favorite carols:
Even Santa Claus must bow and concede there is One greater than he who is to be celebrated during Christmas, and that His name is Jesus Christ. Some have abandoned the white bearded fellow all together, claiming that he resembles nothing like good old St. Nicholas from whom he is inspired. Others, myself included, have let their children know that Jesus is the entire reason for our life and celebration and that it is okay to "pretend" there is a Father Christmas, if just for amusement.
Why bring up Santa Claus in an article about how we can find the very depths of a life of mercy in our traditional Christmas carols? It seems in 1857 a fellow named Benjamin Hanby wrote a carol called "Up on the Housetop." Perhaps its tune and familiar words circulate through your mind. (Up on the Housetop, click click click — Down through the chimney came good St. Nick!) It was a whimsical and charming song about Santa.
When we look through Hanby's relatively short, 34-year life and realize that he was also involved with helping slaves find freedom through the Underground Railroad in the United States, we begin to wonder. For someone so whimsical, how was it he dedicated himself to a life of mercy? Perhaps we could see the motivation of his soul based on another, not-so-known Christmas carol he wrote entitled, "Who is He in Yonder Stall?" Would you walk through the lyrics with me and be inspired by our Merciful Jesus? Notice there are many questions in the song meant to bring the reader to contemplate on the mercy of God.
Who is He in yonder stall
At Whose feet the shepherds fall?
Who is He in deep distress,
Fasting in the wilderness?
How could it be that a Christmas carol has only one line about the manger? I like to think of it this way: The entirety of the song rests on "Who is He in yonder stall, at whose feet the shepherds fall?" Mercy's manger is filled with shepherds who worship Him. Jesus is our Shepherd who will lead and guide us into all truth (see Jn 10:11), and that is why the angels went to the shepherds to tell of the Good News of Jesus' birth.
Yet, He does not stay a Child. The truth that God grew into a man reveals the necessity that He shared and participated in human activity, like fasting. Jesus would also soon be tempted, just like we are tested daily in our spiritual walk with Him. "For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted" (Heb 2:18).
Who is He the people bless
For His words of gentleness?
Who is He to Whom they bring
All the sick and sorrowing?
These are questions of amazement. When speaking to all, He used such words of tenderness and truth that some of the people, in turn, blessed Him. Even more, Jesus demonstrated the very acts of mercy He taught us to obey. All those who were sick or sorrowful were brought to Him for His healing hand. There is strength and power in the name of the Lord; those of us who seek to walk the path of mercy must bring all the sick and sorrowing to Him.
Who is He that stands and weeps
At the grave where Lazarus sleeps?
Who is He the gathering throng
Greet with loud triumphant song?
Do these words sound like someone who thinks Santa Claus is the great provider? No, these are the words of someone who sees in their mind's eyes Jesus crying at the death of His friend, Lazarus; yet notice the words both of Jesus and hymn writer Hanby in their use of the word "sleep." In other words, Lazarus only sleeps in death's cocoon which the Master is perfectly able to awaken him from (see Jn 11:11).
Mercy does not just meet needs, but sheds a tear when a tear is needed. Yet, after expressing deep sorrow, He demonstrates His love for us by raising us from the grave, and by bringing us new life! This is a slap in the face to my own spirituality; sometimes I behave as if meeting the needs of others is a hassle, and I just want to get it done and over with. For Jesus, meeting other's needs started at the very bottom of His emotions, sometimes weeping out of love for those He ministered to.
Lo! at midnight, who is He
Prays in dark Gethsemane?
Who is He on yonder tree
Dies in grief and agony?
One would think that this Man of healing would see nothing but blessings for bringing us abundant life. Instead, the path of Jesus was marked with death at the hands of His enemies. He willingly went through the dark night of suffering for sinners such as me. Beginning in Gethsemane and stretching to the cross, He traveled the road of suffering and shame to reconcile us to God. Many people died a horrible death of crucifixion during the Roman period of 33 A.D.; but no one died on the Cross like Jesus. When people saw Him, they knew His death was somehow different from anyone else's death. At His own expense (and remember, mercy always costs us something), He brought salvation to the world.
Who is He that from the grave
Comes to heal and help and save?
Who is He that from His throne
Rules through all the world alone?
Were they able to end mercy's ministry entirely? Mercy left His throne, left His manger, and left His ministry to go to His holy cross. Yet, He did not remain in the grave, for that was not His ultimate demise. Instead, He would rule the world through the power of His own hand in His resurrected body. No one could dethrone Jesus. And certainly none could stop Him from meeting all the needs of the people: feeding the hungry, providing drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, providing shelter for the homeless, visiting those in jail, visiting and healing the sick, and ministering to those who have died and their family. But in case you doubted or were unsure of who the author of this hymn was speaking of, the refrain echoes throughout the sung carol:
'Tis the Lord! O wondrous story!
'Tis the Lord! the King of glory!
At His feet we humbly fall,
Crown Him! crown Him, Lord of all!
Jolly Old St. Nick is similar to our obsession with fast food! We crave a quick fix for our appetite and thirst, but later, our bodies are no healthier than when we first began. So, too, the symbol of Santa is a spirit of giving to others. It's not bad; it's just not complete! Jesus does more than simply give to people "fast food Christianity"; He gives to people what they really need — Himself and His wonderful lifelong mission of loving and caring for all people! And Benjamin Hanby knew that; it is only unfortunate that his secular Christmas carol was more popular than his religious one.
Here's a beautiful version of Benjamin Hanby's "Who is He in Yonder Stall," performed by the McCallie Men's Ensemble:
We invite you to read the other three parts of our four-part series:
• Part One:
"Good King Wenceslas"
• Part Two:
"Who Is He In Yonder Stall?"
• Part Three:
"Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer"
• Part Four:
"Go Tell It On the Mountain"
Peter James is an administrative assistant for the Association of Marian Helpers in Stockbridge, Mass.