What Child is This? (Advent Meditation)

Nativity, Giotto

Note from CM: During Advent, I have asked some of our wonderful iMonk writers to share meditations on seasonal themes each Sunday. We begin with Pastor Dan today. I am grateful for each of these friends and gifted people, and know that what they share will help us prepare our lives for celebrating the Incarnation.

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And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. —Luke chapter 2


William Chatterton Dix
(14 June 1837 – 9 September 1898)

In the year 1875, 29-year old William Dix of Glasgow was struck down with a mysterious and lingering disease. Until recently, Dix had lived a seemingly charmed life as a very successful young businessman. But now, months of pain, immobility and uncertainty had weighed down his spirits, and he entered the dark valley of depression. Yet he found he was not alone in that valley. In time, he saw, as it were, a single shaft of light piercing the dark clouds, and he called out to the God who gave that light. Though he had been a nominal Christian before, he met Christ, in his words, “in a new and real way”.

This attitude of worship led him to reflect with wonder on some things he had heard many times, but not sufficiently thought through. Among these was the manger scene describe in Luke chapter 2: the shepherds, in amazement at the angel’s birth announcement given to them, of all people, gathered around pondering what the meaning of this strange vision before them.  He wrote a carol, which  invites us to ponder along with the shepherds by asking two questions that never lose their ability to puzzle, even baffle, despite hearing the answers before many times. Indeed, the more we ponder, the more we wonder and worship.

 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?

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 first of those two questions is reflected in the first verse of the song, What Child is this? In many ways, this is the central question of human history. It is also the central question of our lives,  no matter how we choose to answer it. What child is this? Just a fraud? A charlatan? At best a good, but deluded teacher? Or was He really, is he really, what the angelic anthem proclaimed?

The angels appeared to shepherds, and that fact alone could this fact alone evoke wonder, for it would be hard to find two more distant points on the scale of worth (in thinking of that day). Angels were high, mysterious and exalted – messengers from the very throne of God, the very heights of heaven. Shepherds were lowly, down to earth. Their profession was an honest one, to be sure, but with about the same status in their society as we would likely give a busboy or garbage collector. Perhaps we are already sensing the wonder that the one who is higher than all angels would become lower than a common shepherd, indeed die a criminal’s death, in order to make shepherds higher than angels.

And these messengers from heaven give their birth announcement not to Caesar in Rome, or even Herod in Jerusalem, but to lowly shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night. They describe this child with three words: savior, Christ, and Lord.

A savior is simply someone who saves someone else. By this time in Jewish thought the word conjured up a mighty warrior who would save the people from the domination of their Roman oppressors. But of course, these angels had a deeper, and broader, idea of salvation.

The word Christ is simply the Greek way of saying the Hebrew word, Messiah. It meant “the anointed One” and, though occasionally applied to kings, who were anointed with oil, representing the Holy Spirit, again by this time it meant more. The Messiah was the savior, but also the one who would not only defeat the enemies of God’s people, but the one who would set up and rule over the everlasting kingdom, when all the nations would live in peace and fullness.

The third title given to this child is the Lord. This is likewise a word of authority, broader and more generic that the Jewish words Christ or Messiah. Though the shepherds doubtless did not understand it yet, this child would later be revealed to be Lord not just of the Jewish people, but over all people, and, indeed, all creation.

So the chorus of our carol rightly answers the question: this is Christ the King, the savior of all people, the promised One who would build an everlasting Kingdom of peace, justice, and love.

If so, then we see how appropriate is the question asked in the next verse of the song.  Why lies he here in such mean estate?

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

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.

That phrase may take some explaining today. To us, meanness is a moral quality, and not a good one. But the older meaning of the word is something lowly, insignificant, or even off-putting. “Such mean estate” refers to the puzzlement that this high, exalted being should be born in a stable (instead of a palace), and clothed with rags (instead of royal robes), and placed in a feed trough (instead of a bed of ivory). And why are ox and ass the ones gathered around, instead of the court philosophers and nobles?

Why indeed?

The answer lies in the titles already given. He is savior, not from the Roman armies, but from something much deeper, much more brutal, and much more universal: our sin. He saves us both from the slavery of sin, and the punishment of sin. This is why is nails and spear pierce Him through, so the “cross be borne for me, for you”.

Because of this, He is fully Christ or Messiah in a most paradoxical way.  He brings about the kingdom of peace not by force, but by suffering. He brings about the kingdom of justice by taking the injustice of the cross for us. He brings about the kingdom of love by showing what true love really is, and does.

Therefore, He is also Lord or King, but his kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world. It is a kingdom of love (giving of oneself to meet the true needs of the other). Jesus can only form this kind of Kingdom by Himself giving the ultimate price to meet our deepest needs: to be forgiven, to be re-united to God, to be in union with God ( and thereby with each other).

By the very nature of this kingdom, then, it cannot be forced upon anyone, just a true marriage must begin with the consent of both parties. For though it is in one sense a kingdom, it is also a marriage, a family, a realm where love, not force, is the both the language and currency.

So Jesus comes not in His rightful glory, but in his needful humility. He comes not to force us into a prison walled off by his power, but to knock down the walls of the prison house of this world, and invite us outside into the realm of freedom. And this He can only do from the inside. And so He became one of us, humbling himself to be like us in our weakness, in our “mean estate”.

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 a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

These are the two questions asked by the first two verses of this song:  what child is this, and why lies he here in such mean estate? The third question is implied by the answer given in the third verse. The question is this: What do we do after looking at this scene anew? We see the shepherds crouching around the feeding trough; we hear them relate the message from heaven about who this boy is. We see, through the very meanness of the scene, what kind of savior, messiah and King is lying here. What do we do?

The first thing is that we, like Mary, ponder anew what all this means. We don’t just turn from the scene and forget it likes yesterday’s newspapers, but fold it into the deepest recesses of our heart, and take it out again and again to meditate upon it.

Practically speaking, this might mean singing this carol, or other carols, with your family (f you have one) this advent season.  It could mean putting away our shiny screens after some hour in the evening, and reading from a hymnal or from the scripture. It might mean intentionally looking for a way to spread the Kingdom of love and peace and justice by giving to someone in need, by giving or working for justice, by forgiving and seeking to restore a relationship. This is what it means to ponder and wonder.

As we ponder, there is one other word that comes to mind: Come. Or, as the angels said to the shepherds, come to Bethlehem to see the Christ-child. The carol puts it like this: come, peasant or king, to own Him; that is, to embrace Him as your own. He is the great king, but the king of love, not force. You must choose to enthrone Him in your heart and life.

Perhaps that means for you coming to the savior for the salvation from your sins. Perhaps that means coming to the Messiah, the Christ, living in the hope of His coming kingdom. Perhaps that means coming to Him as king by making a deeper commitment that this child is the one you honor to in your decisions and values; this child, not all the powerful people, not the idols of our age, is the one you desire to exalt and emulate and make King over your life.

If so, then we can sing that first chorus not as an abstract truth, but also as a very personal choice, filled with wonder and worship: This, this is Christ my King, whom shepherds guard and Angels sing; I will haste, haste, to bring Him laud, the Babe, the Son of Mary.

6 thoughts on “What Child is This? (Advent Meditation)

  1. But the older meaning of the word is something lowly, insignificant, or even off-putting. “Such mean estate” refers to the puzzlement that this high, exalted being should be born in a stable (instead of a palace), and clothed with rags (instead of royal robes), and placed in a feed trough (instead of a bed of ivory).

    The lyric could be updated from “such mean estate” to “such low estate” to retain both meaning and scansion.


  2. “The Babe, the son of Mary”

    Ah, Christmastime, the one time of the year when Evangelicals are not so chary of Our blessed Lady.


  3. “My ways are not your ways says the Lord.” That is no more apparent than in the story of Jesus’ birth. It’s one of the things that gives me confidence in the veracity of scriptural and religious language. It comes from ‘who knows where’ you might say but it certainly didn’t originate with Hank next door. You can’t make this stuff up. Maybe more to the point is that you Wouldn’t make this stuff up. Found an institution on weakness and lack and insure that it remains wound into its fabric into perpetuity.


  4. Pastor Dan, wonderful thoughts that remind me that a song that I love to sing is deep and has great meaning if you look for it. How when I sing the song it will be even more beautiful and have greater meaning. Sometimes to go to the basics is needed.


  5. For my IMonk friends.
    An Advent Haiku poem.
    Not traditional I know but my best effort.

    He waits outside, He will knock
    Christ our Redeemer

    we hear Him calling
    not now, we are too busy.
    I may not knock twice

    bridesmaids sleep – watch now
    the Bridegroom comes, bend your ear
    too late He has passed

    our mortal lives are
    swiftly gone and are crumbled
    we wait at His feet.

    are Heaven’s joys ours?
    others are welcomed ahead
    we cry for mercy

    May Advent be a time of meditation and anticipation of our Lord’s coming again and remembrance of his Holy Birth.



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