Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Monday, December 30, 2013

What Child is This?

Now after they [the Wise Men] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him."  Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.
Matthew 2:13-14, NRSV Gospel for the Sunday After Christmas

What child is this, who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?  Who indeed?  Or what?

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright tells the story of greeting churchgoers at the door one Christmas, and having a well-known historian, famous for his skepticism about Christianity, come up to him all smiles.  “I’ve finally worked out,” he declared, “why people like Christmas.”  Wright asked him to elaborate, and the man continued, “A baby threatens no one,” he said, “so the whole thing is a happy event which means nothing at all.”

Wright was dumbfounded, and for good cause: the baby in the Christmas story poses such a threat to the local king that he sets out to destroy him, and therein we learn something about the rich meaning at the heart of Christmas.  Some scholars deal with the inconvenient detail of Herod’s rage by simply concluding that the whole story is made up.  There’s no record of it anywhere else, they reason, and surely there would be if it had happened.  Herod, however, is famous for extreme paranoia, and for executing anyone he perceived as a threat, including his wife and other members of his family.  The slaughter of a few babies down the road in the little town of Bethlehem would not have been newsworthy in Jerusalem, where even the leading citizens had long since learned to measure their words carefully.

Dorothy L. Sayers notes that the one thing friends and enemies alike never said about Jesus is that he threatened no one.

But a baby, threatening a king?  How could that be?  Well, it depends upon who he is, and sometimes there is in the paranoid mind a flash perception of truth that sane folks miss entirely.  Herod had messianic aspirations of his own, and here were these strange visitors from afar, inquiring about where the new prince could be found.  If there’s a new prince, Herod in his fear and anger must deal with him in the way that Herod knows how.  Find him, kill him, and to be sure you get him, kill any who might actually be the prince in hiding.

What child is this?

The angel chorus on the night of his birth announces his arrival to shepherds, people who are about as far from the royal palace as you can get.  Seekers of wisdom, probably from Persia, come to offer homage to the cosmic ruler whose birth as King of the Jews they discern in their reading of the stars.  A pious old man at the Temple, waits patiently for many years, and finds the object of his waiting in an eight-day-old boy brought to be dedicated by his parents.  An old woman, a familiar figure at the Temple, known as a prophet, blesses the child and consoles his mother.
What child is this?

Missing from the list of characters who surround his birth are the local dignitaries: the Town Fathers, the Leading Merchants, and the Clergy.  We don’t even learn the name of the priest who presided at his dedication.  Those who wield the kind of power the World understands are notably absent.

What child is this?

The picture we see is of a helpless child, born far from privilege and power, barely noticeable to most, and yet to those who do notice, a source of great joy and hope, or in the case of Herod, great terror.  How can he be that?  The answer: it can be if he is more than a mere child.

The Christian proclamation is that this child, in all his infant vulnerability, is what J.B. Phillips called “God Focused.”  How could the Creator of all that is enter into the creation?  By becoming one of the creatures.  And how could the Creator do that?  By submitting to the very processes already present by which the creatures enter the world.  And why would the Creator do that?  To set straight the world by rescuing humanity from its habitual course of destruction, which threatens to ruin all that the Creator had done.  And so, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “For us, and for our salvation, he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

What child is this? 

Not a visiting spirit, as the Gnostics believed, but the incarnation of God.  The word incarnation, as used here means God became a flesh and blood human, fully human, while also fully divine.  Such a child would indeed cause angel choirs to herald his arrival; would cause lowly shepherds to rejoice; would start foreign sages on a quest for the One who embodies Truth; would set a demented king on a rampage, and such a child would cause an old man and an old woman to offer prayers and blessings and thanksgiving that they had lived to see God’s deliverance for the world.

This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing; haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe, the son of Mary!

Howard MacMullen
© December 3013

No comments:

Post a Comment