What Child Is This?

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will name him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” (Matthew 1:2223)

The Virgin Laying the Sleeping Christ on Straw, by Carlo Maratta

The Virgin Laying the Sleeping Christ on Straw, by Carlo Maratta

“What child is this?” asks the beautiful old Christmas carol. “What child is this, who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” A simple, tender domestic scene—one that has been repeated by the billions in thousands of cultures throughout the world, and throughout human history. A newborn baby lies sleeping in a mother’s lap.

It is a miracle in itself. No matter how much we study it, we still don’t know just how it happens. And no matter how many times it happens, the fact that this incredibly complex biological, psychological, and spiritual being has come into existence is so mind-boggling that the safest thing for us is just not to think about it too much. Every new birth, every new human being, is a work of science and art far, far more advanced than the human mind has even been able to conceive, let alone create. If we think about it too much, our minds may be in danger of expanding beyond any reasonable boundaries, and coming face to face with the infinite Creator whose work of science, art, and spirit each one of us is.

What child is this? Is this truly a child who brings us face to face with our Creator? Is this truly a child in whom the Infinite One has come to meet us and dwell among us?

If it is dangerous to our mental complacency to think too much about the birth of a human child, what about allowing ourselves to consider the possibility of a divine birth? How risky might that be? American culture has made Christmas its biggest holiday, and gives lip service to Jesus Christ, for whom the holiday is named. But to teach that the birth of Jesus Christ was a spiritual event, a divine entrance into our world—that is forbidden in our schools, in our government, and for the most part, in the commercial and corporate world as well, where Santa Claus wins out over Jesus Christ hands down.

Why? Of course, one reason is that not everyone in our culture is Christian. But this doesn’t explain why all religious teaching is banned. There is a deeper reason: it is dangerous to the values of our culture, our government, our corporate world to contemplate too deeply the birth that took place two thousand years ago. In a society and a world that values power and money above all, it is dangerous to consider that there may be something far more powerful than any human power, and far more valuable than all human wealth. It is dangerous because it calls into question the very foundations of this world’s values.

And it is dangerous to each one of us because considering—truly letting it sink into our hearts, our minds, our souls—that our Creator may have visited us two thousand years ago calls into question our own fundamental values. It makes us evaluate our beliefs, our loves, our goals, our lives.

It is far safer to treat Christmas as a secular holiday; to put out of our mind any possibility of a miraculous divine entrance into our world. Then we can have our holiday celebrations, and continue on afterwards as if nothing more has happened than a big festival, a big family gathering, a big exchange of gifts and good will among our family and friends. And all of these are good for us to enjoy. Even the shadow of Christmas that is our society’s secular celebration of the event brings its own blessings and renewals to a tired world.

Yet through it all, the Gospels continue to pull us back to that dangerous question, “What child is this?”

“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 that the angels heralded, prompting those shepherds to come visit a newborn in a stable? What child is this whose birth prompted wise men to travel from a distant land to offer him costly gifts symbolic of a great king’s birth?

What child is this whose birth was originally celebrated by both the simple and the wise, and is still celebrated two thousand years later by people of all types and all races? What child is this whose birth is now celebrated by billions, compared to the few dozen people who were aware of it long ago when it actually happened?

A human birth is miracle enough. Yet this was no ordinary human birth. This was a birth that so changed the course of human history—especially human spiritual history—that it became the turning point of the calendar that is now used almost universally throughout the world. This is a birth that instead of fading into the mists of time, has become more and more powerful as the centuries have gone by. This is a birth that no human being could have achieved. This is a divine birth.

What child is this? Even Christians themselves have debated this question ever since Jesus Christ came among us. Complex doctrinal systems and vast ecclesiastical bodies have been built around particular answers to the question, “What child is this?” The religious debates have raged for centuries: Was he divine or human? Was he the son of Mary or the Son of God? And was he the Son of God, or was he God himself?

My answer . . . my church’s answer, is “All of the above.” Jesus Christ was divine and human. He was the son of Mary and the Son of God. And he was and is God himself. Jesus Christ was and is God himself, Jehovah from eternity, come to earth in human form, as “the Babe, the son of Mary.” He was God himself, who loved us so much that he came from a place of pure divine love and wisdom, of infinite heat and light at the center of the universe, and traveled all the way down through the spheres of heaven and earth to visit us here at the cold, dark fringes of Creation.

He was the Divine Being, the Creator of the Universe, who had such yearning compassion for his creatures that he could not leave us here to suffer in our human darkness and cold. From his infinite mercy he came among us, became as human as one of us, was born from a simple, humble human mother into a life of poverty at the lowest, darkest, and most violent point in human history.

This is the Child whose birth we celebrate. This is the Child whose message—whose very presence—challenges everything this world stands for, down to its very foundations. This is the Child who, if we allow him into our mind, into our heart, into our soul, will completely transform us, turning all our old values on their head, and making us a new person inside and out. This is the dangerous child whom the world and its governments must eliminate, but who triumphed and continues to triumph over all of them, and who is still fighting the battle for each one of us, and for all the nations and peoples of the world. This is the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6).

And they will name him Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”

(Note: This post is an edited version of a talk originally delivered on December 24, 2003. For the next article in this series, please see: “The Divine Birth.”)

For further reading:


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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11 comments on “What Child Is This?
  1. Hoyle Kiger says:

    Humans need miracles. Miracles make compelling stories and satisfy man’s need to believe in a power greater than himself. We choose miracles and blessings for selfish reasons and I cannot think of a better purpose.

  2. Radko Štefan says:

    Dear Lee

    Thank you for this article. It is nice.

    Blessed Christmas time to you and your people,


    • Lee says:

      Hi Radko,

      Good to hear from you, my friend, and thanks for your kind words. May you and yours also have a wonderful Christmas and a blessed New Year!

  3. Hoyle Kiger says:

    In your opinion, why do you believe that God chose to bestow his “one and only son” to Earth where and when he did? Would not mankind be further served by having another “Christ-like” person born into modern times? Would a person be just as ‘worthy’ and influential as Jesus if they followed in his footsteps?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Hoyle,

      From a Swedenborgian perspective, the Incarnation happened when it did because that was when earth was at its lowest ebb spiritually. If God had come earlier, humanity would not yet have sunk so low that it was ready for salvation. Jesus would have been rejected. If God had come later, it would have been too late, and people would have started getting dragged down to hell against their will. There is a basic explanation of this in the section titled “The Long and Winding Fall” in this article:

      Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?

      For a considerably longer explanation, please see:

      Why did God Wait So Long to Come Down as Christ?

      • Hoyle Kiger says:

        Swendenborg’s explanation is illogical because he can only analyze during his lifetime. There are many today who would say that modern times reflect Earth at its ‘lowest ebb spiritually”. There most likely will be many in 100 years, and at various times in between, who will say the same. And that’s my rub with Swedenborg and those who came before and after him, as they attempt to provide “timeless” ethereal explanations not knowing what the future holds. I don’t doubt Swendenborg’s sincerity and somewhat persuasive rhetoric but, the reality is one man’s existential belief in these types of matters is as good as another. No man has a monopoly on knowing God’s word, purpose, and design. It’s not about how much you study, read and submerse yourself in religion UNLESS you’re doing it solely for yourself. It’s pure arrogance to believe we know more/better about these things than do others. “It’s better to be lost than it is to be on the wrong path thinking you are right”. hk

        • Lee says:

          Hi Hoyle,

          No objective student of history could possibly think that humanity is worse off now than it was 2,000 years ago. Study the history. Look at how people lived then compared to how they lived now. Even in material terms, those days were poverty-stricken, brutish, and violent. Today we still have wars and poverty, but there are orders of magnitude more people living on the earth today than 2,000 years ago, and contrary to popular belief, most of them are living fairly comfortably, as the worldwide poverty rate plummets. Meanwhile, as to the spiritual life of people now vs. then, there is also no comparison.

        • Hoyle Kiger says:

          I was responding to your statement that Swedenborg reasoned the timing of “. . . the Incarnation happened when it did because that was when the earth was at its lowest ebb spiritually”. The material condition of the world then, now or in the future is irrelevant to his stated logic. The last sentence of your answer is unsupported and unsupportable as there is no reasonable method to compare spirituality thousands of years ago versus today and on a worldwide basis. Your response seems to imply (taken in context with my original questions and your responses) that the birth of Christ was a ‘one shot’ event that occurred during the very worst spiritual times past, present, and future. No doubt every devout Christian believes that an all-knowing God had good reasons for the Incarnation but Swendenborg’s explanation/logic is illogical. Also, I would refer you back to my original questions if you want to take another stab at it. Or perhaps you might be so bold as to say, “I don’t know”?

        • Lee says:

          Hi Hoyle,

          Humanity’s spiritual state is reflected in its material condition, or more accurately, in the way it lives. We can see how low our spiritual stare was at the time of the Incarnation by studying the history of human culture at that time. And the picture we get is not pretty.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Hoyle,

      Per your request (here), I am returning to your original questions—which, it is true, I did not fully answer. Of course, these are big questions. A truly full answer would require multiple articles. But I’ll give a brief version, and some links to supporting articles.

      As to your first question, why “God chose to bestow his ‘one and only son’ to Earth where and when he did?” I have partially answered that one by saying that from a Swedenborgian perspective God chose to come to earth at that time because humanity was then at its lowest ebb. But that is a simplified statement that is embedded in a broader context.

      In Swedenborg’s view, there have been various ages of humankind, traditionally known as “dispensations.” Swedenborg used the traditions in ancient Greek and Roman mythology of various ages of humankind, including the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age, as a metaphor about the great spiritual ages of humanity, reflected also in the Bible in the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a great statue in Daniel 2.

      A full explanation of this would take at least an article, if not a book. But you can read a somewhat fuller explanation in these two articles:

      1. “The World is Going to Hell in a Handbasket!”
      2. Why did God Wait So Long to Come Down as Christ?

      To make a long story short, in Swedenborg’s view, the Incarnation happened when humanity had progressed through the Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron ages to the age represented by feet of iron mixed with miry clay of the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. At this point, the dream and its interpretation say that a new kingdom will be established that will fill the whole earth and will last forever. Christians, of course, read this as referring to the kingdom of Christ, inaugurated at the time of the Incarnation.

      I hope this answers your first question a little better than my initial brief answer.

      I didn’t respond to your second and third questions before, and will do so now, taking them together, since they are related. You ask:

      Would not mankind be further served by having another “Christ-like” person born into modern times? Would a person be just as ‘worthy’ and influential as Jesus if they followed in his footsteps?

      From a Swedenborgian and Christian perspective, the answer to these questions is no.

      Certainly having Christ-like people, especially Christ-like leaders, is a good thing for humanity. Jesus did want us to follow in his footsteps, and to live the way he did, not necessarily literally, but in spirit, focusing our lives on love for God and love for the neighbor as he taught. And certainly there have been some great figures in the history of humanity since then who have done so, and have led various groups and nations of people in a better direction as a result.

      However, biblically, Jesus is the “only Son of God” (John 3:18).

      While traditional Christians have taken the “Son” part much too literally, and have therefore hatched their unbiblical doctrine of the Trinity of Persons (see “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”), if we read this spiritually and metaphorically instead, from a biblical point of view, as God’s “only Son” Jesus was unique in the history of humanity. Unlike any of the great human figures that have risen as leaders to smaller or larger groups of people, Jesus was the direct and unique incarnation of God.

      Once again, explaining this would take an article at least, if not a book. The short version is that whereas we humans are created, finite beings, the risen and glorified Jesus Christ is an uncreated, infinite being. Quite simply, the risen and glorified Jesus Christ is God. This is unlike any human being. When we rise from death, we become angels, not God.

      So would more Christ-like figures be good for humanity? Yes! But would any of them “be just as ‘worthy’ and influential as Jesus if they followed in his footsteps?” No. Jesus did what no mere human being can do: saved the entire human race from spiritual destruction. Human Christ-like figures who follow in his footsteps do their own much smaller part in the work of lifting smaller segments of humanity out of darkness and into the light.

      For more on who Jesus was and what he accomplished from a Swedenborgian Christian perspective, please see:

      Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?

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