What Child is This?

Nativityb

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?
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 Christian, 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 hearts enthrone Him!
Raise, raise the song on high!
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy! joy! for Christ is born,
The babe, the son of Mary!

Nestled at the center of this hymn are several lines that are routinely excised from hymnals (check yours next time you’re in church): “Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the Cross be borne for me, for you.” The image of an executed person, it would seem, is simply too much for us to bear at Christmas. We prefer the cleaner image of the sleeping baby.

The inclusion of the cross at the nativity is not unique to this hymn. Neither is it novel. One could argue, as Michael Goulder does, that Luke’s image of Mary wrapping her baby in strips of cloth prefigures her preparation of his body for burial. We might also note Simeon’s words to Mary as she presents the infant Jesus in the temple: “this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed … and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35). From the moment of his birth, this Messiah is destined to suffer.

Today, as the Church celebrates God’s entrance into human history, let us remember that God did not arrive as a warlord, but as an infant, peaceful and innocent. As we contemplate the profundity of this image, let us also bear in mind that God did not take on human flesh out of boredom or curiosity; God took on human flesh in order to redeem it. Moreover, let us not forget that God does not redeem humanity by violence, but by becoming a victim.

In a world that continues to fall prey to the allure of violence, be it in the form of assault rifles, concealed handguns, racism, or apathy, let us remember that today God enters into our midst in order to offer and make possible a more excellent way: peace.

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