“What Child Is This?” is no chart-topper among the children. The minor keys and slower pace make it less engaging to little ears. It’s hard to compete with the brightness, cadence, and pep of “Jingle Bells” and “Joy to the World.”
And that repeated rhetorical question is puzzling to a child’s undeveloped sense of artistry. “What child is this?” It’s Jesus, of course. Why do we keep asking that when we all know the answer?
Nails, Spear Shall Pierce Him Through
But many of us eventually grew out of our childish disillusionment with the carol. For some, it’s even become a favorite. Especially those steeping their minds in the Scriptures. It’s that powerful couplet in the second verse sounding a note too neglected during the holidays.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you.
“But this is Christmas,” someone objects. “Lent has its turn each spring; let Advent have its own spot in December. Don’t crowd out the joy and jingle with such death and violence. Let’s not have Lent and his cross upstage Advent and her manger.”
As comfortable as it might be to parse out our celebrations and keep our holiday sentimentals in their own clearly labeled boxes, we cannot keep Bethlehem and Golgotha apart without losing what Christmas really is. There’s a place for focusing on the stable, the shepherds, and the wonder of the incarnation, but to appreciate the depth of what is happening here, we must keep Calvary’s hill on the horizon.
This Is No Circus Act
If we quarantine Jesus’s birth from his death and resurrection, we cut out the heart of what’s so dazzling about Christmas. This shockingly spectacular event — God becoming man, full divinity and full humanity joined in one person — doesn’t just captivate our attention, but captures us for this God-man. We are involved. It is our rescue in view. In the words of the old creed, this incarnation is “for us and for our salvation.”
Christmas is a stunning show. The almighty Ancient of Days is born a frail and fragile babe. But this is not some marvel we watch from a distance, nameless faces in a sea of disconnected spectators. We’re not mere fanatics of the hero, but known and loved by him. And his heroics are not for our entertainment, but our everlasting joy.
At Christmas, we’re not restricted to the upper deck, kept to the bleachers, tucked behind a barrier, but brought onto the field, onto the team of the superstar, given a jersey. The astonishing ontological feat he accomplishes in his incarnation is not a circus act for whomever, but an act of love for us.
Born to Bear the Cross
From the very beginning, from Bethlehem and before, Jerusalem’s tree and empty tomb linger in the distance and give meaning to every angel song and magi gift. And not as history’s most mindboggling magic trick — truly dead and then alive again — but as purposive, effective, and designed explicitly for those who receive him.
He didn’t come to be applauded by myriads of unknown onlookers, but “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). The incarnation is no marquee act at a variety show; he “came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). He came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The eternal Son of God became man not to garner a posse of impressive friends, but to redeem a broken bride — “not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:23).
“The reason the Son of God appeared,” says the apostle John, “was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8) — and in particular to free his people from the clutches of Satan. Since we, his people, “share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14–15).
For Our Sake
“When the fullness of time had come,” says Paul, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman . . . so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4–5). He came to make us intimate family, not faraway fanboys.
He didn’t come to collect on autographs, books, singles, or cameos. “Though he was rich, yet for your sake he become poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). For your sake. It is the “for your sake” that a little Lent brings to our Advent. And even better when it’s a lot.
We stand in awe during this Christmas season, not just because the Word became flesh (John 1:14), but because from his fullness we receive such grace (John 1:16). We marvel not just because he is both God and man, but because he is so precisely for us.