The spirit of Christmas often lends itself to the cry of loneliness. During this season more than any other, thoughts long hidden cease to remain veiled. Yearning for a place to rest our heads from lurking notions of restlessness or isolation, intuitively, many of us sense that we are not quite at home. Christians often speak of this truth expectantly. We are waiting, waiting for all of creation to be made new, even as we catch glimpses now: “Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.”(1) But on honest nights, we might confess that the waiting is wearying, the silence at times daunting. We are homesick, like children lost in a crowd, not quite at home nor capable of getting there.
Edvard Munch, The Sick Child II, pastel and paper, 1896.
For many, the songs and sounds of Christmas lure us further toward this restless longing. Since I was small, the Victorian carol What Child Is This? has roused cries and questions. The haunting, minor tune itself seems to place ancient pleas on our lips: How long O Lord will you look on? How long shall I cry for help? Will you not come near? Could you not tear open the heavens and come down?(2)
The words of the hymn seem to rise from a confused onlooker at the first Christmas. What child is this, here in this crowded stable, surrounded by animals and expectation? If this is the Messiah, why is he here in the cold, without a bed? If this is a king, where is the display of royalty? If this is God, why come like this?
For centuries, humanity has inquired similarly as to the identity of this child and the man he became. Who is this child and does it matter? Was he a myth? A moral teacher? A delusional man? A miraculous infant? Who is this child in Mary’s arms? Coupled with the longings of Christmastime, the possibility of an answer to that question threatens to turn us aflame. Could it be that the heavens have truly come down that we might meet face to face? Is this homeless child the Word that answers our restless longing for home?
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.
The hymn tells a story unlike any other, even as it hints at a familiar theme: In the darkest places, we look and long for hope to rise and be accounted for. We look for answers to questions we can’t entirely find the words to voice. In this, the writer’s own life exudes a similar tale. An insurance salesman in Glasgow, Scotland, William Chatterton Dix was quite successful in business until he was stricken suddenly with a serious illness at the age of 29. From his bed where he laid in depression for some time, he asked the stirring questions of this hymn over and over, suddenly realizing for the first time that God had answered, quite severely.
Why lies He, in a mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, 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.
Wouldn’t it indeed be strange to have the feeling of homesickness, unless it was intended for us to know another home? The cries of Christmas are a part of a vast chorus. Even in loneliness, our longings for home are not without great company. The people of Israel had looked to this day for centuries. Their collective cry was not unlike our own: “Oh that the mountains would tremble before you! […] O LORD; do not remember our sins forever. Look upon us, we pray.”(3) Our cries today are not so different from those a person in Bethlehem could have been uttering before the first Christmas. How long O Lord? Where are you?
And then God came, choosing to be born in a sense of homelessness, choosing to lay his head in a foreign land. God came near, choosing to be born vulnerable, alone, in need of the careful arms that held him. God came beside us, choosing to be exploited, choosing to be betrayed.
What child is this? It would have been a sight to be among the first to behold the infant Jesus crying. Cradled in the arms of his young mother, his cries indeed joined the cries of the world. And for the first time in history, humanity would have heard God weep. This, this, is Christ the King!
Note: This copyrighted essay, used with the expressed permission of RZIM, may be found (including the numbered references) at the following web address: http://rzim.org/a-slice-of-infinity/what-child-is-this .