Rose: Hymns – Infant Holy, Infant Lowly

As can be the case with many carols and folk songs of Eastern Europe, there is much debate about the origins of “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly.” Some speculate that some of the text could have been originally written as early as the 13th century in Poland. And yet, it appears that it was either fleshed out or officially written in the late 16th-early 17th century by a Piotr Poweski, or Skargi. Born in 1532 to a noble family near Warsaw, Piotr started his career as a tutor before becoming a catholic priest in Vienna around 30 years of age. Because of his speaking skills, he decided to be a missionary through Europe. A few years later, he traveled to Italy and became a Jesuit.

After returning to Poland, he proceeded to convert a number of high-ranking families and wrote several theological works and hymns. He directed much of his missionary work and preaching at Calvinist Protestants as a sort of counter-reformation. Yet he also sought a reunion between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics. During this time, he also worked as a professor at Krakow. Then in 1588, King Sigismund III made Piotr his court priest, a position he held until the last few months before his death in the fall of 1612. It is likely that “W żłobie leży,” which we know as “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly,” was written either around this time or just before his time came to an end in court.

Unfortunately, it was quite a long time before someone arranged and published this little hymn for wider use. In 1838, a Michał M. Mioduszewski published his Church Songbook in Krackow. This book preserved the traditional Polish tune that Piotr is assumed to have paired the text with. While most modern translations have only two verses, the original appears to have had four verses with their individual choruses. Additionally, others have taken the original four verses and added additional stanzas in order to create a new hymn called “He is Lying in the Manger.”

Yet the version that most people know best, and that is included in the LSB, was translated and arranged by Edith Margaret Gellibrand Reed in 1920 and published the following year. Though not a direct translation, it held to the spirit of the original text, continued to fit the original meter and tune, and held to the same verse and chorus composition the source text provided. Born in London in 1885, Reed also translated a handful of other hymns and wrote two mystery plays for Christmas, among her other accomplishments during the Great War. A lover of music, she also wrote a book on great composers before her death in 1933. However, the musical composition we have today was arranged by Joseph Herl in the early 2000s.

Though the hymn as it stands in most current hymnals is not the full text Piotr Skargi presumably composed, this little carol connects us at Christmastime to the past through music, lyric, and theology. Here we are connected to a bygone age of Poland in sound and to that first Christmas when Christ the child was born for us.

 Infant holy, Infant lowly,
For His bed a cattle stall;
Oxen lowing,
Little knowing
Christ the child is Lord of all.
Swiftly winging,
Angels singing,
Bells are ringing,
Tidings bringing:
Christ the child is Lord of all!
Christ the child is Lord of all!

Reminiscent of “Away in a Manger,” which perhaps influenced the translator, we are taken quietly to the side of baby Jesus on that first night. Here we see our lord and king has taken on human flesh (Isa. 7:14, 53:1-6, Luk. 1:26-38, 46-55, 2:1-7). He is lowly and yet holy, surrounded by farm animals with no sense of Who is beside them. And yet, do we? We listen still, focusing past the animals and to the fields beyond. In this silent moment, we hear the good tidings of great joy as the angels sing this news: the Christ has been born in the flesh for all men!

Flocks were sleeping,
Shepherds keeping
Vigil till the morning new
Saw the glory,
Heard the story,
Tidings of a Gospel true.
Thus rejoicing,
Free from sorrow,
Praises voicing,
Greet the morrow:
Christ the child was born for you!
Christ the child was born for you!

We look beyond this humble shelter to those fields beyond. Only moments ago, the sheep were asleep, and the shepherds were keeping watch – perhaps rotating so others could take a rest that night – when suddenly the sky was filled with the heavenly host (Luk. 2:8-20, Isa. 9:1-7). Look, now. They saw the glory. They heard the story. And what did they do? They listened to those heavenly messengers to find the reason for their rejoicing, for the One who would take on their sorrow and free them from sin (Isa. 53:1-6, Mic. 5:2). Thus, we now rejoice with the shepherds in Bethlehem – we too now free from sorrow – to greet both Christmas and our new day: Christ the child was born for you Christ the child was born for me!

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

Works Referenced

“393. Infant Holy, Infant Lowly.” The Lutheran Service Book. 2006.

“INFANT HOLY, INFANT LOWLY.” Hymns and Carols of Christmas.

“Infant Holy, Infant Lowly.”

“Piotr Skarga.”

“SKARGA, PIOTR.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1911.

“W ZLOBIE LEZY.” Hymntime.

“W żłobie leży.”

“W żłobie leży.”

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