What child is this?
Homily delivered by the Reverend Rhonda J. Rubinson
at the Church of the Intercession, NYC
Christmas Eve, 2017
Text: Luke 2:1-20
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Merry Christmas, everybody!
And Happy Birthday, Jesus! Tonight is Jesus’ birthday party – the church’s big, beautiful celebration that begins on Christmas Eve and goes on for twelve days. Since the actual year of Jesus’ birth is uncertain, depending on how we measure it, we are celebrating Jesus’ turning somewhere between 1994 and 2006 years old tonight.
That confusion really doesn’t matter. What matters is that Jesus – God’s son, Mary’s son, our Messiah – was born, into our world: Emmanuel, God with us. And what a birth it was! Our gospel tells us that Jesus’ arrival was celebrated in heaven and on earth – choirs of angels burst into songs of joy and praise. Shepherds abiding in the fields witness this display, worshipping and rejoicing at the birth of the Son of God. Clearly, this is a very special child. Yet, we just sang, “What child is this?” Despite what we know now about Jesus and his life, death, and resurrection, this is still a very good question. What child was this Jesus way back then? And what child is the baby Jesus now? What child is this whose nativity we celebrate tonight?
Let’s travel back to the event itself. If we passed by that birth stable on the road to Bethlehem that night about 2000 years ago, what would we have seen? What would we have been able to perceive about this particular child? Would we even have noticed him as out of the ordinary, as special? The shepherds who were blessed with the glorious vision of the heavens at Jesus’ birth knew that he was like no other child ever born, but there is no sign that the rest of the world outside of this small area took any notice at all. Certainly the innkeeper along that road near Bethlehem saw nothing special about Joseph or Mary although she was in labor: he turned away the desperate couple. He didn’t see any reason to help, let alone worship, the Holy Family.
In fact, it seems that it was only a half a world away, possibly as far away as the land we now know as China, that anyone else took notice of Jesus’ birth at all. These were pagan astrologers who saw a sign in the heavens that they called a “star”, even though it could have been something else because at that time everything in the night sky was called a “star,” so what they saw could have been a supernova, a comet, or a rare planetary alignment. When they saw it, the Magi (as we call them) were captivated, so they set out on a journey that would eventually bring them to Jesus’ home in Nazareth. No one else saw their star, and it took the Magi almost two years to reach the child whose birth the star proclaimed. How do we know that it took so long? Because King Herod ordered all children two years old and younger to be killed in response to when the Magi told him when they first saw the star.
The Magi knew that this child was destined to be both king and murder victim. The gifts that they brought him were symbolic of both fates: frankincense, symbolic of prayer, holiness, and the Jewish priesthood; gold, the symbol of the kingship (although in Jesus’ case, he was to have not monetary but spiritual treasure); and finally myrrh, both a medicine and a perfume used to anoint bodies for burial, symbolic of death. If we were able to ask the Magi “what child is this?” they would have replied that the baby Jesus is born the King of kings, but that he is also destined to be put to death before his final triumph, the resurrection, would offer salvation to the world. The Magi knew who the child Jesus was before they ever laid eyes on him.
What would we have seen when we looked upon the baby Jesus? Our imaginations are so blinded by the gospel’s spectacular presentation of Jesus’ birth that we tend to forget much of what it must have been like to be in that manger about 2000 years ago. First and foremost, we would have seen a newborn baby in that stable’s feeding trough who had come into the world the way we did, born of a human mother, but in far more deplorable conditions for birthing, even for that long-ago time. Nowadays most of us are born in a hospital with doctors and nurses and spinal anesthesia, with much attention given to cleanliness and as much comfort as the process of giving birth will allow. Even in Jesus’ day, the norm was giving birth at home on a birthing stool, with female relatives or possibly a midwife in attendance to help the new mother in what was still a very dangerous process that often took the life of the mother and even the child.
But even within those normally difficult circumstances of his time, Jesus’ birth was much more dangerous. We might imagine Jesus’ birth in a manger as a charming, clean, and sweet-smelling thing, but in reality it was filthy, smelly and perilous. The stable was most likely not a building, but a cave in which the animals would spend the night to get out of the cold. An animal cave was a dirty place for Mary to be forced to give birth. And the “swaddling clothes” Jesus was wrapped in? The actual translation is not “cuddly blanket”, but “bands of cloth.” These might have been milk rags with soured milk on them, used to have milked the animals, but more likely, these were binding strips used to wrap a corpse. Is it possible that Joseph and Mary took these cloths with them on their way to Bethlehem because they knew that Mary would likely give birth on the journey, and they feared that she might not make it through alive? That Jesus was wrapped in these as his baby blanket is yet another foreshadowing, like the gift of myrrh, of his death. By the way, the original version of “What child is this?” had a verse in it about the crucifixion; we Episcopalians have cut it out of the version in our hymnal, most likely because it was thought to be too depressing for this “happy season”, but others – like Baptists – still sing it.
We also tend to imagine the newborn Jesus as an unusual, perhaps not quite human baby – there is much art, particularly from the middle ages, that portrays the baby Jesus as a tiny man, a miniature adult with all of the attributes of the fully mature Jesus except the beard. Or, some of us might conceive of the baby Jesus as a kind of “super baby,” a superhuman infant that wasn’t susceptible to things like colic or strep throat – but let’s be clear here, Jesus was both Son of God and a human, not a superhuman, so he could be harmed. Remember that Joseph and Mary had to flee with Jesus to Egypt to prevent Herod’s soldiers from finding and killing him – God told them to flee, which of course implies that he was in danger. If he had magical protection that wouldn’t have been necessary. Later in the gospels it’s clear that the older Jesus had the same physical needs that we have: he often got hungry and tired, just the way we do.
As a baby he needed to sleep, nurse, and be cared for. “What child is this,” opens with the baby Jesus laid to rest on his Mary’s lap to take a nap, snuggling against his mother for warmth and comfort, like every newborn. Most likely, if we passed by that stable on the road to Bethlehem 2000 years ago tonight, we would not have noticed much out of the ordinary, except that this particular family was in need of special love, aid and protection because of their especially dire circumstances.
The baby Jesus is in those same circumstances tonight. He is in special need of our love, aid, and protection. For Jesus to grow in our hearts and in our world to maturity, for him to be able to come of age to minister and offer salvation to the world, he needs to be nurtured by us. We are all very attracted to God’s miracles, but God prefers to work loving salvation in this world through people – that’s why Jesus had to become one of us – and so it is up to us to cherish the baby Jesus as we would any one of our own children.
Among other things this means never forgetting about this child – any parent knows that children can never be forgotten, even for a moment, or something bad might happen. We’ve all seen the terrible stories of neglected children, or children forgotten in hot cars – if there is a child in our life we must be constantly aware of her or his presence. Christmas is a reminder that all of us have God’s child to care for, whether we have our own children or not.
Most of us – myself included – go in and out of awareness of Jesus’ presence in our lives. Our attention and energies swing back and forth between what we consider to be the secular responsibilities of our lives, and opportunities to exercise our love of Jesus – coming to church, worshipping, volunteering, even ministering in whatever manner we are called. But this night, the Feast of the Nativity, is a reminder that this amount of attention isn’t good enough. Tonight we are called to imagine ourselves as wearing a baby carriers on our chests, conscious at all times that we are carrying precious cargo, a child that needs to be loved and served every moment. Think how different the world would be if we lived ready to respond with love and care to the cries of Jesus to serve those around us.
What child is this, born this night on the road to Bethlehem? He is Jesus: the Christ, the Son of God, the son of Mary, our savior – and always, always, our child, too.