One of our most beloved Christmas carols asks a seemingly simple, straight-foward question:
“What child is this?”
Well, it’s Jesus, of course.
But the deepest answer to this straightforward question hasn’t proven to be either simple or straightforward for many people down through the ages.
Indeed, based on the likelihood that Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his public ministry, it even took him some considerable time to fully grasp what child he had been, laid to rest in Mary’s lap that night in the manger so long ago.
And so our own answer to that question may take years to fully unfold.
While we have our liturgy and creeds to go along with our bible and Book of Common Prayer, meaningfully answering that question—what child is this?—will vary in subtle ways from person to person.
My experience will be different than yours, though they are, at their very foundation, the same.
Our lives are journeys over ever-changing terrain and where we are at a given moment provides a different angle to our relationship with Christ—our relationship with that child—and our feel for God’s love and grace.
Clearly, answering the question, What child is this? isn’t a trite multiple choice option that provides the opportunity of a lucky guess. Nor is it a fill-in-the blank possibility.
The answer to this question is an essay, and we write the essay, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph, with our lives.
Some of the deepest parts of the answer can be found in the darkest days of December.
And so, here we are. Advent is drawing to a close. Our wait is nearly over. Christmas Eve rises with the sun tomorrow. And with the tidal wave of light at dawn on Christmas Day will come a son even brighter than the one in the sky.
A great light in the darkness. A light that will turn the darkness, itself, into light.
The darkness around all of us.
The darkness inside all of us.
If we let him.
True light from true light. Begotten, not made.
To drive out the darkness as if he were a super-hero warrior out of myth and legend.
But he’s not that sort of savior.
He’ll wear no armor. He’ll grip no swords. He’ll throw no spears.
He’ll be armed only with light.
Armed only with light and love. Because that is the only way that he—the only way that we—can win.
As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. observed, taking his cue from this “love your enemy” carpenter’s son: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”
That is why darkness flees at the approach of his footsteps.
What child is this?
Only a child, on the face of it. Just a baby boy. That’s apparently all, at that moment in the manger, but that will clearly be enough. Because that moment is going to grow to unbelievably meaningful dimensions.
That one moment will become eternity.
The son of Mary and Joseph. The son of man. The son of God.
And we—those that our hero has come to save—are, ironically, his only kryptonite.
Because Jesus is so vulnerable to our own doubts about the light that he will bring into the world, into our lives, into us, and through us, if we let him.
In the brightness of that light we might be blinded to the truth that Jesus is not alone in the manger straw, not alone in his mother’s lap.
And that is a truth that he tried so desperately to teach us.
There is another child waiting with him for our arrival, waiting to be fully born, with Jesus, into this world.
But who? What other child is this?
If we return to the manger with fresh eyes and, more importantly, a fresh heart, the answer that Jesus gave as he preached the good news about the Kingdom of Heaven is clear and bright, like the Star of Bethlehem, itself.
To answer the question about the other child, begin by breathing deeply:
You may smell the straw and the strong earthy presence of sheep and cattle.
You may hear the gentle voice of Mary whispering. The gentle voice of Mary whispering in your ear.
“Listen to what my son is telling you,” she urges us.
“Feel the truth of his words inside you,” she says, as the livestock crowded around the manger give us warmth.
“My son has called you friends. My son has called you his brothers and sisters. He taught you to pray ‘Our father’ for a reason,” Mary tells us, as we look up into her eyes and want to believe that what she says is true.
“Know that you are loved truly and deeply by God, and by my son,” Mary tells us.
“You are,” she continues, as Three Wise Men enter, “a child of God.”
“Take good care of that child,” Mary cautions us, as the shepherds exchange glances with one another. “Love that child,” she says. “Raise that child with gentleness of heart and strength of purpose.”
“Give yourselves entirely to that child,” Mary tells us. “Truly become that child.”
“And let that child be the best Christmas present you could ever give my son on his birthday,” she says, and the smell of frankincense is everywhere.
“That present is the only gift he wants. For you to become your child of God self,” we hear her say, as Joseph rests his hand upon her shoulder and nods.
“Please let him unwrap that present some day very soon,” she says and then begins singing us a lullaby. “What child is this who lays to rest in my arms?” she sings, her voice feeling like a warm, soft blanket on a cold night. “Where shepherds watch and angels sing..”
And then she falls silent, just watching, just looking deeply into our eyes.
What other child is this?
Mary’s right. This other child is you and me—our child of God selves. And, without Jesus, we never would have known.
So, yes, let’s make Jesus’ birthday wish come true, and become—as truly as we can—our child of God selves.
Fully human but able to love our neighbors as ourselves,
able to turn the other cheek,
walk the extra mile as blessed peacemakers and so become, as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, sons and daughters of God,
hungering and thirsting for justice,
loving our enemies and so disarming them,
turning sword words into plowshares,
letting Jesus turn the water of our lives into wine so that others might find communion in God’s love for them,
giving ourselves as loaves and fishes.
But, no, it won’t always be easy.
The greatest challenge is refusing to allow the darkness to make us doubt that we are a child of God. The darkness has many voices. All of them are human. And sometimes that voice is our own.
They talk to us in the present and from our past. They are persistence voices that diminish and can damage our child of God selves.
Sometimes those voices from our past are worst of all and can make our child of God self retreat so deeply inside us that we can no longer feel or find it. We need to shake their dust from our feet. Past and present. All of it.
Thankfully, the light also has many voices. They, too, are all around us. They nurture. Encourage. Affirm. Guide. And love. Listen to them. Let your light shine.
You might just be surprised by how far it can go.
“My son,” Mary tells us as we turn to finish our Advent journey, “said that you are the light of the world. Please, believe him.”
“If you give Jesus the present that he really wants,” she explains to our wondering hearts, “when he blows out all of his birthday candles the flickering flame of love will remain and the world’s darkness will have retreated just a little further into the distance.”
“You will have opened the gift,” she softly declares, “that he has been trying so hard to give you.”