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Singing the Story: What Child is This?



So we have come to the fourth week of Advent, and our series on “Singing the Story”, concentrating on some Advent and Christmas carols, and what they teach us.

Last week we looked at “O come all ye faithful” which focusses on the importance of the divine nature of Jesus. So much so that it even quotes the Nicene Creed! God of God, light of light, very God, begotten not created. Jesus Christ was and is fully God. That is the confession of the church, and it is a unique that no other religion makes.

But that is not the whole story, is it?

When we concentrate on the two natures of Jesus we walk that tightrope that we find in so much of our theology. If we lean too far into one side of things, we can take away from the other and become unbalanced.

It is vital that Jesus was and is God himself, the second person of the trinity from eternity.

But if that is all we concentrate on we can fall. And some have done that. Some have stressed his divine nature so much that they have come up with all sorts of theories, like saying that he was ONLY God, and just pretended to be a human being, or just looked like a human being but this was an illusion. This heretical view was known as Docetism. There were some other fun ones, monophysitism that believed hat Jesus was only God and not human at all, apollanarianism, the belief that Jesus did not have a human mind or soul, but only a human body. And there were lots of others. These all sprang up because it is a very difficult thing to understand.

How can Jesus be fully God, and at the same time fully human?


The church needed to sort all this out. Because the bible shows us that it is JUST AS VITAL that Jesus came to be fully human, as it is that he was fully divine. This is a mystery that we find it very difficult to understand, as those heresies and endless counsels and debates show us.

How could the infinite (God) fit into the finite? (a human body, bound by time and space?)

This carol for today: “What child is this”.

Do you know the first time I heard this tune? Greensleeves is an old traditional English folk tune that dates back to the 1500’s and was even mentioned in one of Shakespeare’s plays. But the first time I heard it was when I was a child living in Melbourne, because down there, it was the tune that the ice cream van played as it drove our streets!

The words were written by William dix, an Anglican insurance salesman, who was confined to bed for a long period of time after a serious illness. He suffered deep depression during this time, but through all of it he experienced God in a very personal way and wrote this hymn, part of a longer Christmas poem called “the manger throne”.

As opposed to last week’s carol which stresses the divinity of Jesus, this song seems to concentrate on the very earthly, human aspects of who Jesus is, asking “what Child is this”, not “what God is this”? It presents us with questions: How is it that God could be a child that needed to be laid to rest on his mother’s lap, that needed to sleep, a baby, the son of a woman, Mary. And in stark contrast how can it be that with all of that, that supernatural messengers, the angels are singing about him?

This doesn’t make sense!

And the carol keeps on contrasting: “whom shepherds guard and angels sing”

Shepherds guarding is not new, that’s what they do. But, they usually guard sheep! Stupid, helpless sheep. Never before have the angels sung to or about the object of the shepherd’s protection.

The contrast here is staggering: so very human and mundane and everyday and dirty even, but so majestic, and incandescent, and heavenly, all in 6 words!

Verse 2 asks why he can lie in such mean estate. A question so many have asked: should not the saviour of the world be born in a palace, with servants keeping everything spotlessly clean, with royal surgeons on hand, and gold leaf, and shining marble?

Why does HE lie there?

If it was in a stable, or a cave, we are not really told which, and if the animals were all around, and if he was in a manger there would be a smell, of straw and dirt and feed and manure and large animals.


We don’t like the idea of the smell, do we? I think it can be a bit of a sticking point at Christmas.

A minister friend of mine told me that he was a guest preacher at a church at Christmas once, and he preached about tha: the very earthly smelly reality of the incarnation, and a member of that particular church where he preached came and scolded him afterwards, telling him that obviously being Jewish they would have had servants who would have cleaned everything up, and there would have been no dirt, no smell. And he wasn’t invited back.

We like to sanitize the birth of Jesus, don’t we? Why do we have such a problem with the smell?

It doesn’t seem right to think that the cattle who were lowing were also lifting their tails and doing what anyone who has followed a cattle truck in their car knows cattle do.

But this is the reality of the incarnation, of the miracle of Christmas.

It was only in becoming a human being that Jesus could save human beings. It was only in taking on human flesh that he could redeem human flesh.

He dealt with all the worst of the (let’s say manure) that you and I have to deal with in our lives.

He experienced the worst of the stench of death and corruption.

We don’t like to think about those things, and they don’t translate well to hallmark Christmas cards, we even try to “clean up” the baby experience of Jesus: “But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes?” Seriously? Are we somehow trying to make him seem better behaved or something?


Human babies cry. And he was fully human, just as much as me and you!

Realising that he is human makes us realise that he understands us in our weakness. He was not far from William dix in his depression and he is not far from you in whatever you happen to be going through at any one time.


And then we move on: what does this mean? The carol contains an invitation: and this is the invitation of Christmas: Come peasant, king to own him, let loving hearts enthrone him.


What is this saying? It’s saying that if this very human baby, a brother to us, just like us is also almighty God himself, this demands a response. Can you agree and confess that this Jesus is Lord, the one sent to bring humanity back to the father and just view it from afar like a history lesson?

No Christmas always begs the question: If Jesus is God, is he MY God? And if he is, is that going to change anything in my life?

If Jesus is Lord, is he MY Lord? Is he YOUR God? And if so what does that mean? What can I do about it? I hope the answer lies in the message for us tomorrow, when we concentrate on another group of characters in the Christmas story.

But for now, let us stop, and look into the manger, and into the face of Mary as she holds her baby, and sing “What child is this?”




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