The Christmas Question: What Child is This?

Jesus’ birth does not come at the end of one age and the beginning of another by chance. Jesus’ coming is the reason one age comes to an end and a new age begins.

Detail from "The Nativity" (c. 1492) by Domenico Ghirlandaio [WikiArt.org]

Every person’s life involves a story and a mystery. One of the reasons Christmas is such a poignant holiday for all, young and old alike, is that Christmas involves both a story and a mystery.

What does it mean to say each human life is a mystery? It means there is a truth about each life that is deeper than anything another person could see from the outside. And yet something of it can be seen from the outside, as an individual’s life story unfolds. Over the course of a year, ten years, or a whole lifetime, more and more of that deep truth breaks through. The story of a person’s life tells us a lot about who he is, why we he is here, and where he is headed.

Ever since I was a boy, I liked to read the newspaper articles that come out during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, reporting the most important things that had happened during the year that was ending, and predicting what was coming in the new year ahead. Such reports mirror our individual lives: birth and death, victory and tragedy, some things gained and others lost.

When we feel this mix of joy, sorrow, and questions about the future, it’s a good time to remember the words of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

We come together at Christmas to celebrate the birth of the Baby Jesus. Jesus was born at the end of one age and the beginning of another. But He is not like some “Baby New Year,” celebrated in the news because he or she is the first baby who happened to be born after midnight on January 1. Jesus’ birth does not come at the end of one age and the beginning of another by chance. Jesus’ coming is the reason one age comes to an end and a new age begins.

Why is Jesus’ birth so special? To answer that question, we have to ask a more basic question, the key question of Christmas, posed by another beloved Christmas carol: What Child is this?

The hymn “What Child is This” is set to one of the oldest known English melodies (late-sixteenth century), “Greensleeves.” The song’s lyrics come from a poem written by William Chatterton Dix in 1865. Dix wrote his poem, entitled “The Manger Throne”, at the age of 29. He had just undergone a near-death experience which followed a time of serious illness and deep depression. But instead of destroying him, this period of darkness became the soil of spiritual renewal for Dix. And so he wrote his poem at a time when he was coming to realize the meaning of Christmas and of his own life.

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?

What Child is this? Of all the thoughts that come to mind as we look at the Nativity scene this Christmas, this is the one question we really need to ponder.

Why lies he in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

The story of Jesus’ life is very much like the story of our lives. The circumstances of his birth are not just simple; they could be called humiliating. In Matthew’s Gospel, the account of Jesus’ birth comes just after his genealogy. In the genealogy, we read about the whole line of Jesus’ ancestors, some of whom could also be considered sort of embarrassing. The point is that Jesus is fully human, which means that the story of his earthly life has plenty of challenges, but it also reveals a lot about the mystery of who he is. In “What Child is This,” we see the veil over this mystery pulled back:

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 testimony of the Old Testament prophets tells us that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the hopes of God’s people, Israel. Jesus is greater than the greatest and last of the prophets, John the Baptist, who at the time of Christ’s coming on the public scene seemed to be not only the greatest prophet but the greatest man of God around. And in Matthew’s Gospel, we learn the bottom-line answer concerning who Jesus is. The angel tells Joseph: “It is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived…you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus is also to be known as Emmanuel, “God with us.”

We need to keep this clearly in mind, because it is not only Christ’s birth that is humble, but also the life he will lead and the death he will undergo for us. As the song tells us:

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!

The story of Jesus’ life, like ours, is one of both joy and suffering, of love and of sacrifice. But Jesus is not only like us; he is also infinitely greater than us. If someone had stood at my crib and asked, “What child is this,” the answer might have been, “This, this is Charlie Fox, of chubby cheeks and brownish locks.” And that’s about all you could have said at that point in my life.

We are creatures, and we find the meaning of our lives in God our creator. That’s why we celebrate Holy Mass each Christmas, to worship the God who loves us so much he came to live with us and to show us the way to heaven:

So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh,
Come, peasant, king, to own him;
The King of Kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone him.

Raise, raise the song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby:
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!

In the Holy Eucharist, Christ our King comes to us now, even more hidden than in Bethlehem, but equally present. The King of Kings brings salvation to us, brings us joy, brings us peace, and makes this Christmas one in which we can know God’s love more fully. He helps us to know the meaning of our lives, and to know our destiny.

Christ our newborn King also comes to help us share the Good News of Christmas with a world that so desperately needs Him. That is what unleashing the Gospel is all about: knowing Christ so well, loving him so much, and understanding so clearly how much we need him that we cannot help but share him with others.

Blessed Solanus Casey once said that gratitude is “the first sign of a thinking, rational creature.” It is so easy to take Christmas gifts for granted, but ingratitude is a sin. And ingratitude towards God is the worst kind of ingratitude. Yet when we are grateful to God for the gift of himself this Christmas, we will receive yet another gift from him: the gift of even more peace of heart and a deeper sense of identity, meaning, and purpose.

Our purpose is not only to go to heaven ourselves, but to bring others along with us. So, following-up on Blessed Solanus’ wise saying, above, we might add that the second sign of a rational creature is sharing the gift of Jesus Christ with others. We share him so that other people might understand the stories of their own lives, experience the greatest love the world has ever known, and become joined in spiritual union with the Child Jesus and all those who welcome him at Christmas with great faith, hope, and love.


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About Fr. Charles Fox 57 Articles
Rev. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an S.T.D. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome. He is also chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren, MI.

14 Comments

  1. We read: “In Matthew’s Gospel, the account of Jesus’ birth comes just after his genealogy. In the genealogy, we read about the whole line of Jesus’ ancestors, some of whom could also be considered sort of embarrassing.”

    Maybe the rest of the story is that in LUKE’s Gospel, the genealogy begins not with Abraham, but with Adam—a genealogy addressed not only to the Hebrews but to the entire human race from the beginning. Written by the one evangelist who was not part of the Chosen People, but a Gentile convert. So, we encounter in the manger, the veiled Christ, the only one “begotten by the Father” while all others (and all else—even the entire cosmos!) are created through Him, i.e., as we say, “through Him, with Him, and in Him…[!]”.

    Perhaps Christ’s sojourning in a feeding trough is less “humiliating” than it is the delicately humble APERTURE through which Infinite Grace eases itself into a very finite and vulnerable nature, as reflected likewise in the totally humble and therefore unique and totally trusting “fiat” of Mary?

    Of the Jesuit convert, Gerard Manley Hopkins—-ANOTHER POET like Fr. Fix’s William Chatterton Dix—-von Balthasar writes that he (Hopkins) centered his awestruck poetics on the “interweaving” of gratuitous grace within nature, and not only in our shared human nature but firstly in each of us as a personal and receptive “self”—individually unique in the image and likeness of the incarnate Christ:

    “In mankind there may be community of selves, but this does NOT abolish them [each self: ‘God is ‘enselfed in my self’!]. God as the highest self may indwell all created persons in virtue of his uniqueness and transcendence, but only because he has in freedom singled out these selves [each special one of us] …and set them into being” (Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, vol. 3, Ignatius, 1986).

    So, is there a reason why both Matthew and Luke, both, record particular genealogies BY NAME, rather than diluting them into collective abstractions, as is done by modernday sociologists, historians or economists? Instead, the grace of Infinite Love works very much in particular; redemption and salvation is personal and unique, something very much like Dix’s mysterious babe in a manger.

    More than any “inn,” the barn must have felt a lot like a family home.

  2. 👍👏🙏🌲🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🌲🌲🌲🌲🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🌲🌲🌲🌲🎶🎶🎶. Brilliantly written!

  3. Truth previously known and long held becomes infinitely new and renewed through the eyes and words of a wiser soul. Thank you, Father Fox!

  4. Somewhere Jean Piaget, developmental psychologist known for Cognitive Development theory said the first sign of intelligence is the infant’s smile in recognition of his mother’s face. Smile is readily translated to Solanus’ gratitude. Some years many in fact past a team of developmental psychologists in Spain surmised autism is related to the prenatal infant’s sensing within the womb rejection by its mother. Conveying Christ, sharing him as Fr Fox again quotes the humble ingloriously demoted [he was refused faculties to hear confession or preach] Solanus Casey, another of the historical unworthy. Lineage so important to those who boast of their ‘good stock’ lineage, or similar well made choice of a wife is a point of contention captured by Fr Fox. Genealogy, we read about the whole line of Jesus’ ancestors, some of whom “could also be considered sort of embarrassing”. Indeed. Matthew 1, 6 David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife, details somewhat hidden. King David from whom the divine Infant born in David’s city Bethlehem, not Jerusalem [David’s father Jesse was from Bethlehem] was an adulterer and murderer. Bathsheba Solomon’s mother was seduced by David [David repented wrote the wonderful Psalms in gratitude for Our Lord’s forgiveness] who then arranged for the death of her husband Uriah. Those concerned about good stock lineage find an unacceptable anomaly. A blessed anomaly for the rest of us. What this means for sinners like myself is that the Christ child was born into our universe not to condemn the reprobate, rather to save him.

    • Thank you Father Morello.
      Family history has been a hobby of mine ever since my great aunt gave me a copy of her family tree decades ago.
      What I’ve discovered is that many of the family trees & histories concocted in the late 19th & early 20th centuries were influenced by the eugenics movement popular back then. Family “pedigrees” were encouraged & the incentive was to find as much Anglo Saxon stock as possible & noble ancestors. So there’s a lot of wishful thinking & invention in those genealogies.
      Our Lord’s genealogy more closely resembles the real history of most families who are embarrassed when they discover their unvarnished lineage. God writes straight with crooked lines & crooked people.

  5. Luke 2:7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. Firstborn son means Mary had other children, other wise it would have said only son.
    Matthew 13:53 And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not is mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” And he did not do many mighty works these, because of their unbelief.

    Mark 6:3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us? And they took offense at him.

    • “Exodus 13:1-2 reveals something very important about the firstborn in Israel: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and beast, is mine.’

      “The “firstborn” were not given the title because there was a “second-born.” They were called “firstborn” at birth. Jesus being “firstborn” does not require that more siblings be born after him.”

      https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/the-case-for-marys-perpetual-virginity

      “The problem emerges in understanding the meaning of the word brother. In the original text of the Gospel, we find the Greek word adelphos, meaning “brother,” used. However, adelphos does not just mean blood brothers born of the same parents. Rather, adelphos was used to describe brothers not born of the same parents, like a half-brother or step-brother. The word also described other relationships like cousins, nephews, etc. For example, in Genesis 13:8 and 14:14-16, the word adelphos was used to describe the relationship between Abraham and Lot; however, these two men did not share a brother relationship, but one of uncle and nephew. Another instance is that of Laban, who was an adelphos to Jacob, not as a brother, but as an uncle…

      “Actually this verbal confusion originates in Hebrew and Aramaic, the languages of most of the original Old Testament texts and of Christ. In these languages, no special word existed for cousin, nephew, half-brother, or step-brother; so they used the word brother or a circumlocution, such as in the case of a cousin, “the son of the brother of my father.” When the Old Testament was translated into Greek and the New Testament written in Greek, the word adelphos was used to capture all of these meanings.”

      There’s more: https://catholicexchange.com/did-jesus-have-brothers

  6. Barb,
    Firstborn simply means firstborn. It doesn’t imply any following births unless one wants it to. A “first time mother” isn’t guaranteed future children because it’s her firstborn.
    Close cousins & siblings were described by the same terms in Jewish families during Our Lord’s era if I remember correctly. I’m sure other readers can give you better explanations though.

  7. Apparently God wanted it to mean she and Joseph had more children so much that he listed some of their names. Otherwise, sinful man might make one of God’s creatures and turn them into something they’re not and give them attributes that only belong to the Trinity. When that happens, hearts, minds and eyes are off the Creator and onto a sinful created being.

    And Mary said: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” Luke 1:46-47

    Sinless people do not need a Savior. Funny how Mary knew she was a sinner, but Rome doesn’t.

    • No, dear, He did not list some of their names.

      Adam and Eve were created sinless. They chose to sin, and lost Paradise.

      Mary was saved from original sin, the one that is the inheritance of all of us from Adam and Eve, by God. But whereas Adam and Eve, born without original sin, committed sin, Mary never did.

      You seem to be of the odd opinion that God is constrained by time. He isn’t; He is outside of time. Here is an explanation for you: https://www.catholicconvert.com/blog/2020/08/14/how-can-mary-be-sinless-if-she-rejoices-in-god-my-savior/

      By the way, a hint: Insulting His mother is a pretty lousy thing for someone who pretends to love Jesus to do.

  8. Fr. Fox,
    Thank you for your illumination of our human condition through the lens of the adored Christ child. Depression, sense of worthlessness, or worse, over-sense of self importance, can lead us to despair, if not now then in the life to come. So your writing reminds, give hope, restores leads us to the manger scene.

  9. Matthew 13:54-56; Mark 6:3; John 7:5,6. The townspeople Jesus grew up with new His family…Joseph was a carpenter, Mary his wife, 4 rothers named and some sisters. The original Greek wording clearly refers to brothers and not cousins. After the virgin birth of Christ, Mary and Joseph lived a normal husband and wife relationship, bearing other children. At anytime the scriptures clash with Rome’s interpretations…always trust in God’s word.

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