What Child Is This?

December 21, 1997


What Child Is This?

I was talking a couple of weeks ago with a man and his wife who have been members of this church for a couple of years, and with the Christmas season in full swing they had a question they said they had wanted to ask for a long time. I said I liked responding to questions, so they got into their by starting out like this: “We absolutely love this time of year,” they said. “We love the lights and the way families get together and how people say ’Merry Christmas,’ even to strangers, and we loved seeing that truckload of presents the people of this church gave to several homes that would not have had anything, otherwise. The music of Christmas is so joyous one moment, and so tender and beautiful the next, that we just sort of go around for nearly a month feeling better about the world than at any other time of year.”
I was nodding my own total agreement with all this when they paused for a moment as if they were almost sorry to bring up their question, but it was obviously something that had bothered them before and they wanted to get it out. I tried to look encouraging, so they sort of came out with it together, these two very sensitive and highly intelligent people who had already shown me over a couple of years how much their Christian faith meant to them. “You’re a minister,” they announced. “You have been studying the Bible all your life, and teaching it in universities, so how do you read the stories about the wise men following the star, and the shepherds seeing an army of angels in the sky, and about Mary having a child by a miracle? Would you consider talking about this in a sermon during the Christmas season, or is that too sensitive an issue?”
I told them that in this open and inquiring church, it wasn’t, and that I had responded in the past to questions like theirs, and probably would again some time. I set no date for that response, but I couldn’t get it off my mind, and last Sunday, while we were singing that lovely Christmas hymn entitled, “What child is this?” I began looking more closely than ever at what the words said, and how it mixed fact and fancy together so appealingly, and I decided to answer their question this morning. And as I do, I have one for all the rest of you. How would you answer it? Think about that as you listen for the next few minutes.
Over a lifetime of ministry I’ve talked about Christmas in just about every conceivable way. I’ve read and passed along the world’s finest scholarship and what it has to say about how much of the nativity story is solid fact and how much is worshipful poetry, but I’ve also at times told simple, touching stories of what this sacred season means to people with very little interest in textual scholarship. Some of you like the first approach on the grounds that we were meant to use our minds in religion, some of you like the second approach because it appeals to the emotions. This morning, if you will join me in trying to answer that sincere and deeply felt question, we will talk about how followers of Christ over the centuries have been divided about how to read some of the Christmas legends.
As I said earlier, it was a blend of fact and fiction in the great old hymn that really prompted me to go ahead and address the couples’ question this morning. That song, for example, bestows the title of “King” on the infant Jesus, even though as a grown man he once went off and hid from people who were trying to make him be a king, and even though he repeatedly taught his followers that those who serve are greater than those who rule. The song also says that those Judean shepherds came to “guard” Jesus, even though there is not a shred of evidence for that appealing thought. And it says angels sang sweet anthems at the birth of Christ, even though most of the scholarly translations say nothing about their singing — only that they made a proclamation. So I began once more to consider how fact and fiction, history and poetry have gotten all mixed up together through centuries of art and music and literature until what began as a simple celebration long after Jesus died has grown into the most complex holiday on our calendar.
My first thought about the question: “What child is this?” is how little we really know about that child. In one sense, he is the child that never was. I don’t mean, of course, that he never existed. There can be no doubt that a Jewish baby born one day in a remote Roman province grew up to change history as Jesus of Nazareth. When I say he was the child that wasn’t, I only mean that we know almost nothing about him as a child.
But devotion abhors a vacuum as much as nature does, so we sentimentalize the story. Christmas cards picture an angelic baby, complete with a haloed head, sweetly cradled in his mother’s arms. A poem published just last week in the Christian Century (12/17/97), and based on a painting by the 15th century Italian artist Fra Angelico, has that supernatural light about the baby’s head at the very moment of delivery. Fascinated by how legends begin and grow and grow, I was caught by the the poem’s opening line: “The infant has just slipped out,” it says, “naked and haloed, onto ethereal straw.” We get a magic halo at the very instant the Jewish baby, Jesus, is born onto the straw of a manger — and not just your ordinary stable straw, either. This is ethereal, other-worldly straw — a golden bed for baby skin. But this is a child of loving fancy. The real baby, called Yeshua by his parents, must have been a red and wrinkled newborn, blinking fuzzily at the light and howling at the trauma of birth. But we like more glamorous images, like sacred straw and a heavenly halo. We prefer not to wonder whether he was a difficult baby, whether he had trouble nursing, whether he ever cried non-stop with colic.
And even to talk that realistically about the nativity story makes some people uncomfortable. They have romanticized the baby Jesus so much in song and story that it’s hard to remember he really was a baby — which means he had to be nursed, and diapered with whatever people used before Pampers, and then after a while had to be potty trained like any other child. Artists like to show us a perfect Gerber baby, which he may or may not have been, but I think we can be sure about one thing: that despite what artists did for Jesus later in the cause of reverence, there was no glowing halo hovering about his head. That would have startled everybody, and we would have heard about it. But art has Jesus going about as a grown man with that halo over his head. If you have seen Spielberg’s new movie, Amistad, you will remember a scene when a couple of the black slaves are leafing through a strange book called the Bible, wondering at the man who walks around with that light over his head. I thought as they were pointing, and being puzzled, that if Jesus had really had a divine halo over his head during his ministry, how could the masses of people have rejected him? They were even more superstitious than we are. If there had been the halo artists and poets provide, instead of 12 apostles there would have been thousands. Christian scripture, of course, never remotely hints at such a phenomenon, but silence is an open invitation to fancy — and we do have remarkable imaginations when it comes to the life of Jesus.
One thing intelligent faith has to remember when meditating on the question, “What child is this?” is how differently the Christian world has understood the story of the child’s birth — millions reading it literally as a biological miracle, other millions reading it as poetry, a way of saying that a life so radiant must have had a beginning like no other. Believers have always been deeply divided over the nativity stories , even as they were honoring Christ beautifully in their lives. I have made no secret of my conviction that Christian faith is proved by demonstrating the spirit of Christ and not by how one interprets a story which devoted Christians have understood differently. If, for example, I had to name the two people in this century who seem to me to have captured the sacrificial love of Jesus more completely than any others, I would pick Albert Schweitzer from the first half and Mother Teresa from the second. I assume that she read the birth story quite literally. I know that he didn’t — that for Schweitzer it was the way certain early disciples of Jesus chose to magnify an already incredible life by giving it a miraculous origin. So when the lovely Christmas song asks, “What child is this?” my thoughts are not influenced by a literal reading of the birth stories.
But I came to that conviction gradually through a lifetime of deeply serious study of the Biblical story and the miraculous birth legends one finds in the literature of other religions. My own faith journey has led me to agree with the finest scholars I know, Protestant and Catholic alike, who are convinced that the birth story developed long after Jesus grew up and years after he died — that it was the typical way of paying tribute in those days to someone considered too remarkable to have had anything but a supernatural birth. For those who find that idea hard to accept, a crucial question is whether the New Testament itself offers any supporting evidence for their puzzlement.
My own first surprise came when I realized that the earliest Christian scripture never suggests for a moment that Jesus was born by a miracle. Writing years before any other New Testament books were composed, the Apostle Paul describes Jesus simply as one “born of a woman” — not of a virgin, although he knew the word, but born of a woman. And Mary must not have been for Paul what she would become for later Christians because he doesn’t even bother to use her name. The question “What child is this?” simply has no interest for Paul, whose life was changed by what Jesus became as an adult but who never hints, in so much as a single line, that his devotion is based on a supernatural entry into the world.
The first of our gospels, written by Mark, imitates Paul in ignoring the virgin birth story completely, which really does seem incomprehensible to me if he knew that story and believed it. He sets out to convince his readers that Jesus is the Son of God by telling one miracle story after another, so why would he miss a chance to include one of the most sensational of all — that the birth of Jesus was announced by angels and brought about by a stupendous miracle. But instead of that, this most primitive of our four gospels begins very quietly with Jesus already a grown man. So any serious student of religion has to confront this question: was the birth story unknown when Paul and Mark wrote about the man who had changed their lives, or was it known but unimportant to them?
But there is something else much stranger to me than their silence. What seems incredible to many is that Jesus himself never once talks as if he knows anything at all about a miraculous birth. In support of his right to start a religious revoluton he never makes a single reference to hosts of angels proclaiming his birth to a group of local shepherds; he never links himself with a wondrous guiding star that led the magi hundreds of miles to his crib to leave expensive gifts. Neither he nor anyone else ever betrays any knowledge of a wicked King Herod so frightened by the baby Jesus that he murdered God knows how many innocent baby boys in hopes one would be Jesus. Never once does Jesus claim to have been conceived by God rather than Joseph — not in his sermons, not in discussions with his disciples, not even when he is repeatedly under attack for claiming special insight into the will of God. He claims kinship with God, he calls himself the bread of heaven, but when sceptics scoff at that and say he is Joseph’s boy, and they know both his parents very well, thank you, he says not a single word about the miraculous birth that would prove them wrong.
Whatever the reasons may be for that silence, it does seem ironic that accepting the birth story as literal history has become a test case for deciding who truly follows Jesus, when Jesus himself never once even bothers to mention it. He tells us all sorts of things about what true discipleship requires, but he is completely silent about birth stories which the church later declared had to be believed as literal history. He is silent, I think, because those stories belong to the world of poetry and came into existence after he died. But poetry has always stirred the heart far more than literal fact. So we love Matthew’s guiding star and worshipful wise men, and Luke’s army of angels scaring the simple shepherds half to death, and Mary’s pondering all these things in her heart — despite the fact that when Jesus was grown she shows no sign of remembering any of it.
But if believers have held differing opinions about some of these things, there is one thing about which we are certain. What we know for sure is that the radiance of that extraordinary life has filled our darkness, and that whether we read with literal minds, or take as adoring poetry the tender and beautiful stories about the birth of Christ, what we truly honor at Christmas is the abiding love he taught us to have for each other. So, in the name of Christ, Lord of our lives, may this be a deeply joyous week for all of you. Amen.

Each year, on Christmas Eve, we make your offering on that night a gift to some organization doing the work of love and hope in our city. This year we have chosen to buy outdoor playground equipment for children in therapy at Heartspring — our way of saying welcome to the neighborhood and God bless what you do. Please plan to be with us on that hallowed evening, and please be generous to handicapped children who will find joy in what you have given.

Christmas, gracious God, is a rebirth for all of us. By the glow
of soft lights, by the sound of voices raised in song, we are
reminded that our first and greatest commandment is to
love. Thank you for a reminder so tender and beautiful.