As a child, I was not impressed with a Christmas song that asked a question everyone already knew the answer to.
What child is this? Really? It’s Jesus, of course. We all know that — even the kids know that.
What I didn’t yet understand is that questions aren’t just for solving problems and requesting new information. Sometimes questions make a point. We call those “rhetorical questions.” Other times the form of a question expresses awe and wonder about something we know to be true, but find almost too good to be true. It’s too good to simply say it directly like we say everything else.
When the disciples found themselves in a great windstorm, with waves breaking into the boat, and Jesus calmed the storm, they said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41). They knew the answer from Scripture. Only God himself can still the seas (Psalm 65:7; 89:9; 107:29); this, somehow, must be God. But it was too wonderful just to say. This new revelation of Jesus’s glory was too stupendous to keep quiet, and too remarkable not to say it in some fresh way. God himself had become man and was in the boat with them. “Who then is this?”
It’s in a similar vein that we say at Christmas, “What child is this?” We know the answer. It has been plainly revealed. And it is almost too wonderful to be true. God himself has become man in this baby, and has come to rescue us. The eternal Word has become flesh and dwells among us (John 1:14). It is clear and certain. We must say it straightforwardly and with courage. And it is fitting that at times, like Christmas, we wonder, we marvel, we declare in awe, “What child is this?”
Such Mean Estate
What prompts this statement-question of awe, though, is not only that God has become man, but that he has come among us in this way — in this surprising poverty. The first stanza gives us the glory we expect: Angels greet him with anthems sweet. That’s the kind of arrival we expected. Heavenly hosts sing. The heavens are alight with song.
But even here there’s a glimpse of the unexpected. The angels sing to shepherds. That’s odd. Angels, yes — but shepherds? Shouldn’t there be dignitaries, especially from among the regal and religious establishment of the Jews, who have purportedly long awaited the coming of their Christ? Shouldn’t shepherds take a number behind the king and his court, the priests and the scribes, and the Jerusalem elite?
The unexpected is there in the first stanza, but it is the second where things get especially peculiar. Why does the newborn lie “in such mean estate” in the very place where “ox and ass are feeding”? Why a stable? Why this place of poverty? Why not a palace, but the lowest of all structures?
The beauty in asking — in saying — at Christmas, “What child is this?” is that it beckons us beyond lowly Bethlehem to a life of even greater lowliness. And not static lowliness, but increasing lowliness.
Here at Christmas we celebrate that Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men . . .” (Philippians 2:6–7). But why? Why this surprising appearance among us? To simply show us it can be done? Surely this is more than a stunt. Why has he come? What is he here to accomplish?
Christmas commemorates more than his birth. It also presses us forward in his story, beyond the lowliness of the manger to a life of lowly sacrifice with no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58) — and finally to the ultimate lowliness, an odious public execution, condemned unjustly as a criminal: “. . . and being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).
Some may suspect we are souring the brightness and joy of Christmas when we sing, “Nails, spears shall pierce him through . . .” Can’t we leave that for Good Friday? Let us have our nice, little, cuddly Baby Jesus at Christmas. No nails, no blood, no death, no thank you.
But the Word-made-flesh, coming without a cross in view, is no good news. The light and joy of Christmas are hollow at best, and even horrifying, if we sever the link between Bethlehem and Golgotha. “. . . The cross he bore for me, for you.” This time, he comes not in judgment, but mercy.
He did this for you. Christmas is for you only because his life is for you, and his death is for you, and his triumphant resurrection on the other side is for you. “Nails, spears shall pierce him through” doesn’t ruin Christmas. It gives the season its power.
Come, Peasant King
So we sing, “Come, peasant king to own him.” Lowly shepherds are here. And when the lofty of his own people will not bow the knee, foreign dignitaries traverse far, over field and fountain, moor and mountain, to honor him by laying down their treasures. Peasants come, and kings. The weak and the strong. The wise and the foolish. The low and despised kneel side by side with those powerful and nobly born.
The manger is for all sinners because the cross is for all sinners. And this is all too much for simple fact-finding, cool-headed analysis, and calculated articulations. This is the stuff of singing. This is the time to say, to declare in the awe and wonder of worship, “What child is this?”