John Ross Dix was a British writer and poet in the 1800s. He led a difficult life. He wrote poetry, but poetry doesn’t pay the bills. His first business failed within a year. He studied medicine (his education paid for by his friends) but his alcoholism ended his medical career. He tried several other occupations, spent time in debtors’ prison, and continued as an active alcoholic in spite of his vows of temperance. The highlight of his life appears to be that he wrote a noted biography of the poet Thomas Chatterton, though it is said to contain many half-truths and a now discredited portrait of the poet. By 1850 he had abandoned his family in Great Britain and gone to America, where he continued to write books on temperance and religious subjects.
But before all of that went wrong, he had three children with his wife Sussanah. The third, a son, he named William Chatterton Dix, after the poet he so admired. Born in 1837, William would have been 13 at the oldest when his father abandoned them. William grew up and made his living as the manager of a marine insurance company in Scotland. And in his spare time, he wrote poetry—like his father, and the man after whom he was named.
Every resource I could find tells the same story about William Dix. He was unable to work for several months due to an unnamed illness, and on January 6, either 1858 or 1859, he couldn’t go to church to celebrate the Epiphany. So he read the story we have just read, and he meditated on the journey of the magi. The result was the poem “As with gladness men of old.” It was set to music and published in 1859.
I invite you to sing with me this carol found on page 168. Notice as you sing that each of the first three verses begins talking about the three magi or wise men, but quickly draws the parallel to us, so that the point of the story is not simply to tell their tale, but to encourage us to be inspired by their actions. The traditional language in the first verse is “As with gladness men of old,” but I like the updated language in other hymnals that reads “As with gladness sages bold.” So sing whichever words you prefer, “as with gladness men of old or “as with gladness sages bold.”
I asked you to pay attention to how each of the first three verses starts with the magi’s story but ends with ours. Here are the applications: like the magi, may we be led, may we seek, and may we give. I could preach a sermon on any of those, or all of those, and probably have. But this week what jumped out at me was that phrase about seeking with “willing feet.” I had never thought about having willing feet, but I’m certainly well experienced in the opposite: dragging my feet. My kids do it physically—dragging their feet when they don’t want to go somewhere or don’t want to do their chores. I do it more metaphorically—procrastinating to avoid something. And sure, I can drag my feet on gathering my tax info for my accountant, or some other slightly unpleasant task; but I’m more concerned when I do it emotionally or spiritually. I have, at times, drug my feet about confronting something. I have, at times, had unwilling feet when it comes to walking in the ways of Jesus. What about you? You don’t have to answer this out loud, but I want you to think about it: when or where do you drag your feet about something important? What changes does God want to make in you that have you with unwilling feet?
And what would it look like to live with willing feet? Would willing feet run to help a neighbor? Would they jump at the chance to make peace? Would they march for justice?
What else would willing feet do? Would they dance to celebrate someone else’s victory? Would they stop moving long enough to enjoy the sunset? Would they kick bigotry to the curb?
What else would willing feet do?
I think again about the songwriter’s life—about how he must have watched his father’s alcoholism tear their family apart, how he watched his father leave. And in the 1800s, life could not have been easy for him and his mother and sisters once his father left. Did he think his father’s feet were unwilling to walk away from alcohol? We know more about alcoholism and addiction now, and we know it’s not all about willpower. But his father’s feet were unwilling to stick around, unwilling even to stay in the same country. I wonder how that affected William as a boy, as a man. And did that have any impact on the writing of this carol?
Maybe his history shows up in the fourth verse: Holy Jesus, every day, keep us in the narrow way. Is that a prayer for his father or himself? And when earthly things are past, bring our ransomed lives at last. Some hymnals say ransomed souls, but others say “lives,” and I like that better because it means our entire lives can be freed. And when earthly things are past, bring our ransomed lives at last where they need no stars to guide, where no clouds thy Glory hides. The time will come when all things will be clear, and we will not flounder and wander aimlessly. What a powerful thought for someone who watched his father ruin his own life, and potentially the lives of his family.
I don’t know this for sure, but it appears to me that William Dix took what happened to him and used it both to inform his theology and to inspire others. What do we do with what happened to us? I am not saying everything happens for a reason. But how do we respond to it, and how do we use the pain in our lives to bring about even a tiny amount of good?
I was unable to learn what happened to William Dix over the first few years after writing this carol, but six or seven years later, in 1865, William Dix was again ill, and again bedridden, only this time he also had a severe bout of depression. He had a near-death experience that brought him into a time of spiritual renewal, and he began to write Christian poems and songs again. The best known from this time period goes like this: What child is this, who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping; whom angels greet with anthems sweet, while shepherds watch are keeping
In his last verse, again his lyrics call us to respond: So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh, come, rich and poor, to own him—to own him means to confess and to claim; the King of kings salvation brings, let loving hearts enthrone him.
So now we have willing feet and loving hearts, and that is a powerful combination! That is what allows us to sing with those men of old or sages bold. It’s what allows us to sing along with the angels we have heard on high. If we have willing feet and loving hearts, we can proclaim Joy to the World and it will be so.