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 1:22–23)
“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.”)
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