The Christmas carol “What Child Is This?” has always reminded me of the wonderI felt when I held my own children as newborns. One screamed for three solid months. One slept for three solid months. And, one never took her eyes off mine for three solid months. But, I would look into their faces imagining who they would be when they grew up and so grateful for the opportunities to imagine a world that was not yet.
This carol does not ignore the “mean estate” of circumstances that greets Mary’s child. The refrain from this carol responds to the question, “what child is this” with “this, this is Christ the king.”
What child is this who’s laid to rest
on Mary’s lap is Sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet
while shepherds watch are keeping.
This, this is Christ the King
whom shepherds guard and angels sing.
Haste! haste to bring him laud,
the babe, the son of Mary.
Why lies He in such mean estate
where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
the silent Word is pleading.
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.
So, bring Him incense, gold and myrrh
Come peasant, king to own Him.
The King of Kings salvation brings
Let loving heart enthrone Him.
Raise, raise a song on high
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
As much as we would like to think we know this babe on Mary’s lap, we really have no idea who these people are. We don’t know Mary and we don’t know Jesus.
This child on Mary’s lap grew into the One who spent time engaging and loving people – eating at strange tables, walking with strange persons, and healing sick bodies and broken hearts.
This child on Mary’s lap grew into the One who turned to another child one day to show the community that acting childish could also look like sharing with others. He demonstrated to his friends that another world – one where everyone had enough – was possible right then and there.
This child on Mary’s lap grew up to be the One who found vocation expressed in the words of the prophet Isaiah:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. (Isaiah 61: 1-4 NRSV)
I look around at what passes for faithfulness in we who would follow this child sleeping on Mary’s lap and I can only come to one conclusion: we traded that baby for some other god a long time ago.Tweet
Good news to the oppressed? Healing balm and comfort over broken hearts? Freedom from prisons and reasons to rejoice? What child is this? “Sweet little Jesus, boy – we didn’t know who you was.”
The one sleeping on Mary’s lap saw humanity as reflections of how beautiful God is and dreamed of policies of repair and healing not limited to the benevolence of political leaders. “The spirit of God is on me…” he said.
Dear God, who is this child? Help us to find our way to the baby sleeping on Mary’s lap. Amen.
Image: JESUS MAFA. The birth of Jesus with shepherds, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48387 [retrieved December 27, 2020]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).