What Child is This?

Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright, round yon virgin mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace. 

It’s a wonderful scene. This timeless hymn paints a beautiful picture. One can imagine the stars of the sky on a clear night shining down, a full moon providing its soft light, onto a field where a cave pokes slightly out of a hillside. There in that cave is a young couple with their newborn child, smiling sweetly as he sleeps. 

What a wonderful, brilliant, beautiful scene. 

If we consider it this morning, it’s really an astounding scene: God come into the world as an ordinary human baby to be Emmanuel, God with us. 

What child is this? 

Let’s hear our scripture this morning: it’s the story of the angel visiting Mary to announce the good news that she would bring the Son of God as a human into the world. 

Scripture 

What child is this?

It’s easy to imagine the shepherds asked the same question. If Mike Rowe’s show “Dirty Jobs” had existed on Galilean TV back in Mary’s day, shepherds would have certainly been featured. Like the folks who go into sewers, work landfills, and make cheese, shepherds were considered dirty. So they kept to themselves, on the outsides of cities, living their lives taking care of sheep. 

These were, perhaps, some of the most ordinary people imaginable during Mary’s day. And it’s to these very ordinary people, these ostracized people even, these outcasts, that God decides to make his big pronouncement. Like the King of England announcing the birth of a child to Prince William or Prince Harry, God puts his royalty on full display in the night sky by sending a gaggle of angels out to the fields where “shepherds were keeping watch over their flock by night.” They put on an incredible show, an extraordinary show. 

It’s fair to say that Silent Night’s version of this scene was probably right: “Silent Night, holy night, shepherds quake at the sight, glories stream from heaven afar, heavenly hosts sing Alleluia.”

What child is this? 

A child who on Mary’s lap is sleeping, whom angels greet with anthems sweet while shepherds watch are keeping? 

A child who looks for shelter among us, whom we see amidst the poor? 

God, who came as a human baby to be Emmanuel, God with us. 

What child is this?

A new carol, one we heard just a few moments ago titled, “Child of the Poor,” together with “What Child is This?” speaks directly to the way Jesus came as a human among us. Hear the first verse and chorus again:  “Helpless and hungry, lowly, afraid, wrapped in the chill of midwinter, comes now among us, born into poverty’s embrace, new life for the world. Who is this who lives with the lowly? Sharing their sorrows, knowing their hunger? This is Christ, revealed to the world in the eyes of a child, a child of the poor.”

Christ the King, who reigns in our hearts, lives with us as a friend, and empathizes with all our human plights. Jesus, who was fully divine, came to earth to be fully human. To walk a mile in our shoes. Which is the definition of empathy. We have a savior who can empathize with our human condition. This is Christ, revealed to the world in the eyes of a child; a child of the poor. This, this, is Christ the King! 

How amazing and incredible that God would come to be one of us, experiencing life as we do, empathizing with our human condition. That’s reason this morning to feel the warmth of our savior, who is at hand, never far from us.

But what about those times where Jesus feels far away? Where we, ourselves, feel “helpless, lonely, afraid, wrapped in the chill of midwinter?” What about those times? 

I had a midwinter season like that. Many years ago, I left my counseling techniques class in a fog; completely lost. I aimlessly wandered around the campus of James Madison University. I couldn’t go home; I wasn’t sure why but I just knew I couldn’t go home yet. I was lonely and afraid and Dana wasn’t home yet, so I suppose the crowd of people around campus gave some small comfort. 

I was in graduate school, pursuing a master of education in counseling, and had just shown a tape of me counseling a fellow student. I went into it thinking I’d done this magnificent job. I had solved the person’s problems, provided sound advice, and told them what they should do next. Clearly, I was about to get all the praise and glory the professor could muster. 

But of course, as any mental health professional knows, I’d done a terrible job. The professor raked me over the coals, in front of my classmates. I left embarrassed, dejected, but also something deeper than that. Something had come loose inside of me. There was a deeper breaking down that was happening and I couldn’t identify it. 

I wandered around campus, aimlessly, wrapped in the chill of midwinter. It was late January, there was snow on the ground, my feet got wet from melting snow and I was chilled to the bone, but I hardly noticed; my suffering was so great it consumed me; I was helpless, afraid.  

And where was God in the midst of my midwinter? Where was the help I needed? I was already teetering on the edge of what would become a season of agnosticism. Where was the baby Christ who shares in our sorrows, and knows our hunger? Where was this baby Jesus whom shepherds guard and angels sing? Where was God in the midst of my suffering? 

What about those times where Jesus feels far away? Where we, ourselves, feel, “helpless, lonely, afraid, wrapped in the chill of midwinter?” 

What child is this? 

Consider how little we know about Jesus’s life. We know something of his three years of ministry, leading up to his execution and resurrection. We know a little bit about his early years: his birth, the flight to Egypt, the visit of the magi, and the scene of him teaching in the temple as a boy. But, we know very little about his earthly life otherwise. 

That’s because Jesus, as a toddler, a little boy, a teenager, and finally a young man, was ordinary. He was the obscure son of a carpenter, learning to ply his father’s trade. Based on the scene in the temple, we can imagine that he had a reputation as being particularly talented at theology, and maybe his neighbors thought he would work in the temple one day. That would be no different than a child we know who’s particularly talented at soccer, or math, or high in emotional intelligence; the kind of child for whom we have high expectations and see a clear career path.

The point being Jesus, prior to his ministry, was ordinary. And the whole of his earthly life, he was human, just as we are. 

Knowing the ordinary circumstances of much of Jesus’s life, we’re right to ask the same question as a famous Christmas carol, “What Child is This?” This child who “laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping, whom angels greet with anthems sweet while shepherds watch are keeping?” His ordinary and obscure birth, announced in extraordinary fashion by angels, brought into the world by the extraordinary means of immaculate conception, but then visited by the very ordinary shepherds, does raise the question, what child is this? 

A child who was born helpless and hungry, lowly, afraid/Wrapped in the chill of midwinter/[who] comes now among us, born into poverty’s embrace. 

What child is this? 

In the duet we heard just moments ago, we hear the answer. 

Who is this who lives with the lowly? Sharing their sorrows? Knowing their hunger? 

This, this, is Christ the King whom shepherds guard and angels sing! 

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 is Christ, revealed to the world in the eyes of a child; a child of the poor. 

A child of the poor; the poor in spirit, the lonely, the angry, the heartbroken, the despairing; all those suffering in body, mind, or spirit. Jesus knows what all of that is like. He understands life’s hardships, “sharing [our] sorrows, knowing [our] hunger,” precisely because he lived as one of us, obscure for most of his life. 

In all those years as Jesus grew up from a baby to an adult, he experienced life just as any human does: knowing hunger, thirst, experiencing anger, heartbreak, despair, fear, suffering in body, mind, and spirit. And because he knows what it’s like to be human, what it’s like to be us, he empathizes with us. He meets us in that suffering with comfort and peace, with an arm around our shoulders and an encouraging word to say to us. Paul puts it well in Hebrews: we have a high priest who can sympathize with us.

Jesus, the extraordinary coming of God in human form, Emmanuel, God with us, comes into the world through a rather ordinary birth, born to the most ordinary of parents who live in an obscure, backwater Galilean town, greeted by the most ordinary people imaginable; a child of the poor who grew up knowing what it’s like to be poor in spirit, suffering just as we do.

What child is this?

This, this, is Christ the King! 

Months after my terrible experience of being lost and afraid that midwinter day, graduate school moved on for me and I drifted into agnosticism. Continued training as a counselor eventually caused me to awaken to a tough reality: I had no idea how to empathize with others and I was extremely immature in my emotional intelligence. What broke that day was my insular, prideful, self that thought it knew everything and could tell everyone how they were supposed to live. 

But healing, true healing, didn’t come until a Christmas season a couple of years later. It was during Advent, at Martha Bowman where we were attending church after we’d moved to Macon, that I found healing in my soul, experiencing the power of Jesus’s friendship and empathy with my plight. 


It happened, in large part, because I answered the question, “what child is this?” I said, this, this, is Christ the King of my life! 

I had struggled to believe that God could heal the broken parts of me. But there, in the scripture we read this morning, we hear Gabriel make a profound statement, “for nothing is impossible with God.” That included my healing. And when I confessed that nothing is impossible for God, and that I needed what only God could provide, I found the healing journey that led me to emotional maturity and a deep well of empathy. 

What child is this who lives with the lowly, sharing their sorrows, knowing their hunger? This is Christ, who saved me from my suffering, for whom nothing is impossible.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus is famous for asking the disciples during his earthly ministry, “who do you say that I am?” It’s the same question as, “what child is this?” 

So this morning, let us ask ourselves, “what child is this?” Who do you say Jesus is? 

To experience the power of Christ healing us, to know how Jesus empathizes with our plight as humans, having suffered as we did, we must confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; we must admit that we are in need of Christ, that we cannot do this thing called life on our own. This is more than mere head knowledge, understanding something about Christ; this is confessing in our hearts that Jesus is savior and that we have a need. 

When we are lonely, afraid, wrapped in the chill of midwinter, Jesus comes now, among us, born into poverty’s embrace, giving new life for the world. 

Jesus comes when we, having been asked “what child is this?” confess with our whole heart, “this, this, is Christ the King whom shepherds guard and angels sing! Haste, haste, to bring him laud; the babe, the son, of Mary.” 

God came down in human form to be one of us, to empathize with us humans. That’s love’s pure light, as described in Silent Night: “Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light, radiant beams from thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace. Jesus, Lord at thy birth. Jesus, Lord at thy birth.” Love’s pure light. Only love, that unconditional love God has for each of us as God’s creation, would cause God to want to find out what life was like for us. Only that kind of amazing, passionate, intense, love, would cause God to want to suffer as we humans suffer. 

In this very ordinary human birth, we see God doing something extraordinary: choosing to be ordinary, just like us, to know what life is like for us, actually choosing to experience suffering, just as we do. We see, ultimately, how God was and is truly with us, Emmanuel. We see an extraordinary love for us ordinary people that we find through the ordinary birth of an extraordinary God; a God who wants to live life with us, through all our trials, challenges, temptations, and suffering; as it says in “O Holy Night,” in all our trials, born to be our friend.

What child is this? The Son of God, love’s pure light, who came to know life as we do, to suffer as we suffer, that he might empathize with us. 

Who do you say Jesus is? 

Where are you suffering today? What are you hungering for? Where do you have a thirst in need of quenching? Where are you poor in spirit? 

Bring whatever it is before God, confessing that you know the answer to the question, “what child is this?” This, this, is Christ the King! This is Christ, revealed to the world in the eyes of a child; a child of the poor. This is Christ, King of my life. Confess that you know who Jesus is, and that you’re in need of the healing only he can provide. 

Whatever you’re going through today, whatever trials you know, whatever aches and hurt you know, Jesus has known them and empathizes with you. Out of his great love for you, Jesus walks that journey of hurt, pain, and suffering with you. 

And if you’re not suffering today, if you know Christ is King of your life, then bring all who thirst, all who seek peace, bring those with nothing to offer; invite those you know who are suffering to come to church. Speak openly and honestly about the faith you have that has made a difference in your life. In doing so, you will say through word and deed to the frightened hearts you know in your life, “fear not! Here is your God!”

God with us, Emmanuel, born to us so long ago to be one of us, among us; a child of the poor. 

Who is this who lives with the lonely? Sharing their sorrows, knowing their hunger? 

This, this, is Christ the King! 

Who do you say Jesus is? 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

To listen to the mash-up of What Child is This? and Child of the Poor, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IetPAANnhzQ&list=RDIetPAANnhzQ&start_radio=1

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