Once again, the night of nights is upon us. Tonight the Church of all ages and locations, of all time and space, marks and celebrates the inbreaking of the only One who could ever do what was necessary for our rescue.
Tonight we are reminded in no uncertain terms that God has acted. The fabric between heaven and earth is torn. Angels step through it. By God’s authority, they tell us He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to bring peace between God and man. We hear these details from the Gospel writer, Luke. In his divinely-inspired way, it’s the Gospel writer John who so eloquently records that this Son of God is the very Word that “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
The angels speak of an accomplished peace. John refers to an unmistakable emittance of glory. Together, these do not mean what many might think they mean.
Perhaps like me, you have favorite hymns. One of mine is “What Child Is This.” This caressing Christmas hymn is one of the few that stirs me emotionally every time I hear it. It’s a hymn that is not only meant to be sung in solemnity and reverence, but at certain moments along its course, it invites a measure of vigor that few other hymns do. I’d say this is true because of the hymn’s innate understanding of the newborn Christ-child’s task for establishing peace through the display of His truest glory.
Right in the middle of the fantastical scene described by stanzas one and three—a scene that portrays the Virgin Mary holding the newborn Jesus close to her bosom, all the while shepherds are kneeling beneath a glistening nether sphere filled with invisible angels swirling on divine melodies—suddenly, there is the abrupt contrast brought by a more sinister sketch. Shattering the landscape’s serenity, stanza two crashes into the hymn like a meteor impacting the surface of the world. It wonders rhetorically why the divine Child has so crassly begun in the mean estate of society’s dregs. It even implies mortal embarrassment at the Son of God having little more than a manger—a feeding trough—to serve as His first cradle.
And then it hits.
“Good Christian fear, for sinners here,” stanza two continues, its momentum beginning to build, “the silent Word is pleading.”
The hymnographer refers to the Word made flesh sleeping in Mary’s arms as an imploring that’s aimed at the whole world, but even more so the Church. It calls for us to pay attention. We are urged to remember that the very presence of God in the flesh is a visible admission to what’s coming, to what absolutely must be accomplished. For as lovely as this night might seem, this Child was born to die: “Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you.”
The Christmas tree sparkles. The candles flicker with gentle splendor. The tranquil setting gilded in seasonal magnificence is indeed an incredible sight. And yet, among all these things, the truest glory of Christmas, the genuine peace accomplished between God and mankind, will always be located in the death of Jesus for sinners.
If you don’t get to sing this hymn at some point during the Christmas season, then you’re missing out on something extraordinary. And if you do get to sing it, but the musician doesn’t lay into stanza two with some intensity, then you’re missing some of the hymn’s genuine import, too. “What Child Is This” answers its own question—the question of all questions—right in its middle. This Child is the One who has come to bring eternal peace. He will do this in a dreadfully gruesome, and yet, a most glorious way. His powerful death will be the piercing of heaven’s joy through and into this world’s helplessness in Sin.
I pray this joy for you this Christmas, namely, that you would cling to this glorious Savior—his person and work—and by faith in Him, you would be found confident for each of your remaining days in this life.