In the Manger
What Child Is This?
"What child is this, who, laid to rest, on Mary's lap is sleeping," we carol to an old English tune.
It's an appropriate question for the season (and for always), and the answers are many. The carol that asks it has one: the baby is a king. Perhaps that claim lies behind the erroneous attribution of the carol to King Henry VIII. It's understandable that those faithful to Jesus would want to picture him at the pinnacle of human offices, in an age when, in the words of Mel Brooks, "It's good to be the king." Our race inevitably organizes itself hierarchically. Anyway, King is an accurate synonym for Christ, the "anointed one." Even the "servant of the servants of God," otherwise known at The Pope, the supreme representative of the lowly Galilean prophet Jesus, gets his ring kissed from kneeling heads of state. No matter that Jesus tries to turn this pyramid of human relationships on its head, telling his disciples in a verse (Matthew 23:9) often quoted by avid Protestants who use red letter words to reject the high church name of "Father" (and now "Mother") for a priest; while in a following verse Jesus declares, "The greatest among you will be your servant." But here we are, the baby king of Bethlehem: no wonder the followers of the Star of the East are also celebrated as kings; it's only fitting. Presidents and premiers to this day feel obliged to honor each other at inaugurations and funerals.
Of course, "monarchizing" the baby poses a problem. Namely, how does one square that loftiness with his lowliness, not just at the beginning of his life on earth but especially at its ending. Sure, you know what we do: we baptize the superlatives in the Gospel of God's love and mercy, and Jesus becomes, in the words of a hymn, not a carol, "The king of love." In my mind's eye I can see the mural in the Intermediate Sunday School room in the tower of First United Methodist Church, Stamford CT, at the corner of River and Main. The building has long since been demolished and its successor too, a tire shop, is also gone. Still I can picture my cousin in the throng in the mural gathered around Jesus in springtime, flowers blossoming, birds flying, and sweet peace reigning in the world of the Prince of Peace. With such visions we democratize Jesus. Were it not for his robe he could be our gentle Uncle Jacob.
I have willingly participated in this stress on Jesus' humanity, not only that it is common with us, but it is uncommonly gentle. Some pulpits push the emphasis a bit far, suggesting a certain chumminess with the Savior. A nonagenarian in my congregation in Brooklyn, immigrant from Norway, gently took me to task one afternoon for what she perceived as my "depedestalization" of Jesus. She pointed to her mantlepiece on which rested a ceramic of Jesus at his Ascension. "That's the way, pastor, I was taught to see Jesus," she explained. High and lifted up, she wanted me to understand; not down and dirty. In this fiercely egalitarian moment of time, Gunda has a point that needs to be made. Divinity deserves respect, even when it shows up in swaddling cloths, on a cross, or somewhere less iconic.
Which leads to a second answer to the carol's question about the identity of the baby sleeping in Mary's lap. The child is God. It's Paul's answer... the Apostle Paul. Nowhere stated more emphatically than in Colossians 1:15-20: "He is the image of the invisible God... all things have been created through him and for him... in him was all the fullness of God pleased to dwell." There you are: take all of those Latinate superlatives - omniscient, omnipotent, ineluctable, immortal, eternal - we heap upon the Almighty, bind them up in a neat package, and lay them in the manger. That's pretty much the sole requirement for any denomination to belong to the World Council of Churches: the confession that the Lord Jesus Christ is God and Saviour.
Years ago a young man sat in my study in Brooklyn. He was a member of Jehovah's Witnesses, one of the army of door-to-door evangelists. He thought to persuade me on the fine points of his beliefs, particularly that Jesus is not God and there is no Trinity. I listened to his explanations. Then I opened my Bible to Colossians and the passage just referred to. I asked him what he made of those startling claims by the Apostle Paul. Apparently his proof-texting preparations had not anticipated what I put before him. We spoke a bit more and as he stood to leave he asked for a Kleenex, the better to stanch a small wound he had just bitten on the inside of his cheek. I never saw him again... nor did I entertain any fantasy that I had persuaded him.
He is but one of many who, for all kinds of reasons, religious and otherwise, are scandalized by the Christian claim that God was not only in Christ but that Jesus was God (see John 1:1 for corroboration). The same Apostle Paul, speaking in a world immersed in ancient Greek learning, uses the word "scandal" to describe the learned reaction to the idea of God in a manger. A friend of mine in seminary celebrated that "scandal" by posting a quote on his bedroom wall: "Oh, the unthinkable thought of the co-existence of the universal and the particular." If you are curious about its context, ask me sometime. The point is simply that the creator of the universe, the one who is before every beginning and after every ending, that he or she would enter time and our mortality defies, totally defies, logic. But there you have it, and have it baldly stated: the child laid to rest on Mary's lap is God.
The third of three (for immediate purposes) possibilities to answer the carol's question is the simplest... and the most redemptive. The child, if king and God, is foremost a child. Like you and I once were. Born of a woman, entering this world through a mother's pain in childbirth; messy if beautiful, the fluids, the crying, life begins on earth. God is not exempted. Nor is God exempted from our departure, death. The whole grand design behind Bethlehem is to fill this mortal flesh with divinity. No, that's the wrong way around. The design is to fill divinity with humanity.
What is it we say almost reflexively to those going through a tough time? That's right: I know how what you're going through. Though often, candidly, we don't. It's a gracious gesture of sympathy. The incarnation, God in mortal flesh, birthed and dying and everything between, is heaven's right to insist, "I know how you feel." There's no struggle so exhausting, no tragedy so demoralizing, no blind alley so frustrating, and, it must never be forgotten, no ecstasy so exalting, but God in Christ has been there ahead of us. Emmanuel: God is with us. God is for us, there in Mary's lap.
Greensleeves is the name of the tune with which this message began. Wikipedia reports the origin of the name with a bawdy speculation as to how the lady's sleeves got green. This aspersion led me to investigate the origins of a favorite hymn of the passion, "O Sacred Head Now Wounded." Wikipedia notes this tune was borrowed from a secular love song (with no aspersions cast!). Some may be perturbed by the fleshly origins of these tag ends singing the praises of the child in the manger. Jesus, to my way of thinking, would not take offence. God's immersion into the human condition, to redeem it, would certainly never steer clear of its tawdriest moments, including the tawdriest of all, that scene on Golgotha where the flesh of the Savior is torn with nails and savaged with a sword.
Without forgetting that ending, then, let us with gladsome hearts celebrate the beginning of a life designed to free us from evil, sin, and death, the one belonging to "the child, laid to rest, on Mary's lap is sleeping."