As a child, I loved “Joy to the World.” It’s so upbeat and celebratory. It’s manifestly happy.
The Christmas hymn I didn’t like was “What Child Is This?” It’s in a minor key and sounds so sad — and I was not impressed with a song that asked a question everyone already knew the answer to.
What child is this? Really? It’s Jesus, of course. We all know that — even the kids know that.
What I didn’t yet understand is that questions aren’t just for solving problems and requesting new information. Sometimes questions make a point. We call those “rhetorical questions.”
Other times the form of a question expresses awe and wonder about something we know to be true, but find almost too good to be true. It’s too good to simply say it directly like we say everything else.
God himself has become man in this baby, and he has come to rescue us. The eternal Word has become flesh and now dwells among us (John 1:14). It is clear and certain. We must say it straightforwardly and with courage.
And it is fitting that at times, like Christmas, we wonder, we marvel, we declare in awe, “What child is this?”
Such Mean Estate
What prompts this statement-question of awe, though, is not only that God has become man, but that he has come among us in this way — in this surprising poverty.
The first stanza gives us the glory we expect: Angels greet him with anthems sweet. That’s the kind of arrival we expected. Heavenly hosts sing. The heavens are alight with song.
But even here there’s a glimpse of the unexpected. The angels sing to shepherds. That’s odd. Angels, yes — but shepherds? Shouldn’t there be dignitaries, especially from among the regal and religious establishment of the Jews, who have purportedly long awaited the coming of their Christ? Shouldn’t shepherds take a number behind the king and his court, the priests and the scribes, and the Jerusalem elite?
The unexpected is there in the first stanza, but it is the second where things get especially peculiar. Why does the newborn lie “in such mean estate” in the very place where “ox and ass are feeding”? Why a stable? Why this place of poverty? Why not a palace, but the lowest of all structures?
The beauty in asking at Christmas, “What child is this?” is that it beckons us beyond lowly Bethlehem to a life of even greater lowliness. And not static lowliness, but increasing lowliness.
Here at Christmas we celebrate that Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men . . .” (Philippians 2:6–7).
But why? Why this surprising appearance among us? To simply show us it can be done? Surely this is more than a stunt. Why has he come? What is he here to accomplish?
Christmas commemorates more than his birth. It also presses us forward in his story, beyond the lowliness of the manger to a life of lowly sacrifice with no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58) — and finally to the ultimate lowliness, a shameful public execution, condemned unjustly as a criminal: “. . . and being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).
Some may suspect we are souring the brightness and joy of Christmas when we sing, “Nails, spears shall pierce him through . . .” Can’t we leave that for Good Friday? Let us have our nice, little, cuddly Baby Jesus at Christmas. ‘Joy to the World,’ but no nails, no blood, no death, no thank you.
But the Word-made-flesh, coming without a cross in view, is no good news. The light and joy of Christmas are hollow at best, and even horrifying, if we sever the link between Christmas and Calvary. “. . . The cross he bore for me, for you.” This time, he comes not in judgment, but mercy.
He did this for you. Christmas is for you only because his life is for you, and his death is for you, and his triumphant resurrection on the other side is for you. “Nails, spears shall pierce him through” doesn’t ruin Christmas. It gives the season its power. We can sing “Joy to the World” only because he has come as our “man of sorrows.”
The manger is for all sinners because the cross is for all sinners.
Let us pray.
Prayer of Confession
Father in heaven, forgive us for shallow, empty Christmases. Forgive us for wanting the joy of Christmas day without the substance of your Son’s cross and resurrection. We confess that something in us recoils from the dark strokes, the pain, the sorrow, the shame, the mistreatment, the suffering your Son came to endure on our behalf. We want a respite from our hurts, and overlook that it only comes in, not away from, the sorrows of your Son.
We ask this Christmas that you would pour all the depths and riches of your gospel into our celebrations. Jesus came to save sinners. Help us to enjoy Christmas not as the mere birth of a famous figure, but as a taste of his triumphant resurrection, the accomplishment of his mission, his victory over sin and death, the announcement that the man of sorrows has indeed secured joy for the world because of his ultimate sacrifice for sinners like us.
So now we confess to you silently our sins, which are many.
Assurance of Pardon
Because he was born to die; because he didn’t simply come to earth as one of us, but gave his life to ransom us; because the high joys of Christmas lean on the great sacrifice of Calvary; and in view of the confession of your sins; as a minister of the gospel, I declare to you the full and entire forgiveness of your sins, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Congregation: Thanks be to God!